156) The Salvation of Eden: Chapter 2 — Filthy Elves and Unlikely Allies

         Ironically, it was prejudice that saved her, in a roundabout sort of way. She was picking through pears at a fruit stand, when she noticed the man, a beggar, sitting off to the side on an empty apple crate. He was shabbily dressed, in his 40s if not older (she always had difficulty estimating adults’ ages). But he had nice shoes. Maybe too nice? He wasn’t wearing them though; they were merely sitting beside him, crisp and clean-looking.

         The man massaged his left foot with both hands, his nails long and dirt-encrusted. His other pant leg looked too skinny. Kohra realized suddenly, he was missing a leg.

         She’d seen this man a few times, although never before this spring. The returning warmth had brought more than green shoots and insects; it also brought the refugees, the orphans, the wounded vets. More and more people these days were on the move, seeking a place to call home in a world where doors were becoming far more likely to stay closed when the needy came knocking.

         He was trying out a new strategy today. He had affixed a sign to his crate so it stood up in front of him, with a rumpled hat conspicuously displayed underneath. The hat already contained several coins.

         She peered at the sign, a crude drawing of…a person?

         She realized in a flash what it was – the familiar if poorly-rendered caricature of an Elf, skin too dirtied, ears too big, eyes too wide-open, eyebrows too slanty, and the requisite evil leer like he was coming to eat your children. A big red X was drawn through this unflattering portrait of her people. The rest of the sign was covered in a smattering of words written in black ink.

         “Murderers & thieves,” over and over.


         The one-legged beggar grinned at her. “Mornin’, miss.” He was surprisingly courteous. She wasn’t exactly sure why she found it so surprising. It just didn’t fit with what she’d been expecting from a guy with a sign like that.

         He seemed not to recognize her as an Elf. Most people didn’t. The townspeople, of course, knew she was a “half-breed,” as the ignorant ones called her, but in general her Elvish features were muted enough that she could pass as Human, especially in a community of mostly farmers, who spent enough of their lives outside that their skin tone had browned to approximate hers. This had the upside of helping her “pass”, but the downside that she was then picked on for not only being a half-breed, but also looking like she was poor.

         She smiled politely and prepared to move on. Then for some reason, she stopped. Maybe it was the sign. Maybe it was because she felt foolish for staring at him. Maybe it was because he had one leg and she didn’t want to appear rude. Maybe it was just because his eyes were sad.

         She nodded at the sign. “So you’re against murderers and thieves, I see.  What a coincidence; me too!”

         He snort-laughed, continuing to rub his foot. “A young’un with some sense! Maybe there’s hope for us yet!”

         “You raising money to fight crime then?” she asked casually. Talking to strangers was something she had always enjoyed. It was easier than talking to friends, most of the time. She loved the mystery embodied by a person who had lived a whole life that she could never know. Whoever they had been before, she liked to think that at least for this one conversation, they could wipe the slate clean and start fresh, unencumbered by the mistakes of their pasts, and equally unintimidated by their success or social status.

         He laughed. “Yep! A one-man war against th’Elves. That’ll fix everything.”

         “Oh!” She faked surprise. “Elves! Gee, what do Elves have to do with murderers and thieves?”

         He retrieved a bottle of amber liquid from a pocket in his grimy jacket and took a swig, wincing as he swallowed. “They’re one ‘n the same, girlie.”  A grimy hand wiped his equally grimy mouth. “Don’t they teach you anything at school?”

         Kohra smiled, wide-eyed, hoping she looked naive. “Well, I don’t know; I mean, I’ve never heard of Elves murdering people, have you?”

         “Heard of it?!” He pointed to his too-skinny pant leg. “Bastards took my leg, they did! Massacre of Flannigan’s Creek….” His stare was hard, then he lowered his gaze, and took another swig. Long exhale. “I’ll curse ‘em ’til the day I die.”

         She shook her head sympathetically. “I’d curse the person who took my leg too.” She shook her head sympathetically. “War is terrible.”

         He raised the bottle as if toasting her, took another swig, then pointed to the foot he was rubbing. “You like my shoes? First day breaking ’em in, an’ they ain’t too kind to th’foot.”

         This was the moment when Kohra should have, and normally would have in a situation like this, wished him well, moved on, and gone back to whatever she’d been doing. But the truth was, she hadn’t been doing much of anything — looking at pears that she had no money to buy.

         But, this old guy seemed pretty harmless, and what the Hells, she had never talked to anyone before whose primary vocation seemed to be to wage a personal vendetta against her own people.

         She sat on the crate beside him, offering the pear she had pocketed when the merchant wasn’t looking. He accepted, holding up his amber bottle in return. She declined, laughing internally at the notion of drinking with him in front of his awful sign.

         Her new “friend” picked at something between his teeth, looked at it appraisingly, and ate it, sucking the end of his finger. “Not many kids your age stop and talk, you know,” he said quietly.

         I can’t imagine why….

         He looked different, more relatable, now that she was sitting beside him. “Here, hold this.” He handed her the bottle and started rummaging around in the pockets of his jacket.

         Kohra wondered about the absurdity of it all as she held his liquor, watching the shoppers milling around. Most were too caught up in their own business to pay them much attention, but those who did invariably looked at the sign, smiling or frowning once they understood it. There were considerably more smiles than frowns, as coins clinked into the hat.

         Her companion finally found what he’d been looking for, a handkerchief, and blew his nose. She handed the bottle back when he was done. “I’ve heard that a lot of the things people say about Elves aren’t true.”

         “Y’never grew up with ’em, did ya?” he replied, a bitter tang to his voice. Kohra shook her head. Ironically, she didn’t know the culture of the people whose blood she carried in her veins. If that culture still existed.

         “You’d think different ‘bout ’em, if you did.” He took another swig, wincing as he swallowed.

         “Damn Elves ruined our town. I’m from Caer Brinlin…at least, when I was a lad.”

         Kohra nodded, though she’d never heard of the place.

         “We was peaceful farmers, y’know, back as long as anyone could remember. Many old families back then, deep roots. Then the fernal Elves showed up. First, it was harvest time, migrant workers mainly. But some of ’em decided to stay. We tried to kick ‘em out, but too many bleedin’ hearts took pity on the dirty bastards. They was fleeing poverty and violence, they said. They had their lands stolen, they said. They said their own children had been taken away, if you can believe that!”

         He spat into the dirt.

         “Well, I don’t know about any of that, but it don’t matter. A man is what he is. And them Elves? Murderers and thieves, as likely to slit your throat as to mind their own business. Bah!” He spat into the dirt again.

         Kohra felt many things all at the same time, although hopelessness was the resigned ruler of her emotional realm. She’d heard all this before. It didn’t matter what you said, what arguments you made. If a person already decided they hated Elves, then that was that, and trying to change their mind was like trying to stop the wind.

         But if you stayed silent, if you didn’t challenge people, then they’d win.

         Hate always wins in the end.

         However, on this particular day, the conversation didn’t have a chance to take its predictable route, for at that moment, the parrot flew from its perch, right over the heads of the crowd, to land, smack on top of the awful sign. Quietly, it squawked, “Gods be damned! Kohra’s in danger. Rraaaah! Sonofabitch!” Then it flew back to the tree.

         The beggar laughed. “Ha! You hear that? Crazy bird. What’d he say anyway? Some sonofabitch is in danger?”

         Before she could think of a response, the clattering of hooves overrode the general market chatter as six armoured steeds, decorated in the red and black of the Anthorrian Guard, trotted in tight formation into the square. Everybody turned to look, then promptly looked away, no person wanting to single themselves out.

         The lead rider stopped on the outer rim of the crowd, right beside the sign. He glanced at it momentarily, smirking, then dismounted, uniform finely pressed and gleaming. Kohra squinted up against the brightness of the sky as he turned to them; he seemed very tall.

         The beggar straightened up, attempting a sloppy salute. The horseman ignored him, bowing to Kohra, “Greetings, young lady. I am here on business of the King. We are looking for a Miss Kohra Pholtinus? She’s about your age. Do you know her? We were told by some of her friends that she would be around here.”

         Heart racing, face flushed, she hesitated, uncertain what to say. Luckily, her companion blurted, “D’you say Kohra? Hey, just like that parrot!”

         The Guard glanced down at the interruption with a mixture of impatience and disgust while Kohra’s mind sprinted through her maze of confused thoughts. The parrot HAD said she was in danger. If she didn’t say something, this Guard would ask someone else, and at least half of the people there could easily point her out.

         She clapped her hand to her mouth, trying to look like a wide-eyed local girl intimidated by the fancy uniforms. “Oh y-yes!  Is she in some kind of trouble, sir?”

         He bent down to get closer, trying, but failing, to put on a warm and friendly smile. “You know her?”

         “Oh yes! Well, not personally! I mean, I know most of the people in this town, even if I don’t KNOW them, know them. You know?” She smiled, tittering, hoping she was being charming, or at least ditzy. Men in charge usually seemed to like that.  “There aren’t very many of us here, you know! Not like in the big city probably, right?”  Squirming a little, hoping she looked shy, she glanced up again and did her best to ‘bat her eyes’.

Gods, where’s Devona when you need her?

         The Guard smiled back, winking. 


         “Good girl; you’ll help us then?” His voice had softened, but his eyes sharpened with a disturbing intensity.

         “I…I’ll try, sir,” she assured him. 

         Cupping her hand over her eyes, she squinted, scanning the crowd for as long as she dared. “Ummmm, I don’t see her, but I know she was here earlier. Maybe an hour ago?”

         Then she brightened, as though she’d just had an idea, clapping her hands in her best faux-excitement. “Oh! I know! She works down at Bennett’s most afternoons! She’s probably headed there! You know the place? Bennett’s Bait & Boats? Down by the river?”

         “We’re not exactly from around here,” he drawled. “Maybe I’ll have to come back more often; you can show me the sights.”

Kohra smiled like she was dazzled. It’s amazing how easy it is to convince men that they are charming.

         “Well, it’s real easy to find; you might even catch up to her on the way. Let’s see…. You take the West gate, then the footpath after the 3rd windmill. You can’t miss it, then it’s a long downhill ’til you hit the river. Bennett’s is right there; just look for the boats!”

         He had her repeat the directions, then bowed, raising her hand for a kiss. “Charmed, young lady; may we meet again!” He leapt athletically onto his mount, and the others turned their steeds, picking their way across the cobblestones. Once they were clear, a loud “Hyaaaah!” and clattering hooves receded into the distance.

         Kohra sat motionless, stunned, although her mind was galloping as fast as the horses, racing to figure out what to do next.

         A low whistle from her companion. “Hells girlie, whaddya s’pose this Kohra’s done t’get the Guard after ‘er?”

         Acting on pure intuition, she leaned close to his ear, and whispered, “I think she murdered some ‘o them filthy Elves.” Then pulled back and, pointedly, winked.

         His eyes widened, mouth hanging open. “You…you’re—” but she put her finger to his lips before he could say it.

         “Look, I’m on your side, ok?” She kept her voice low, conspiratorial.

He nodded, staring with open admiration.

“So do me a favour.” She was startled for a moment, at how confident her own voice sounded. It was not at all how she felt. “When they come back, tell them you saw me, right after they were here, and I went North on horseback, riding hard. You tell them that. North on horseback. Ok?”

         Still wide-eyed, he nodded. “North…horses…got it.” She turned to go, but froze as he grabbed her arm.

         “Here.” He held out his bottle of amber liquid, still three quarters full. She tried to refuse, but he pressed it into her hands. “It’s all I can give ya, girlie. Hey, y’never know when a bottle ‘a scratch’ll come in handy. You just get as many ‘a them Elves as y’can.”

         She stuffed the bottle into her satchel. “Thanks friend. Remember, I rode North.”

         He saluted her. She saluted back.

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