Many of you were complaining earlier in the year that I was posting instalments of Lindy too seldom, and I will probably now get complaints that I am posting them too often, but I have always said that I can only write at the pace that my time and my inclination allow, and my poor readers must, unfortunately, take what they can get. As always, those who are new to the story can find the beginning at Chapter One, and those who would like to have the story thus far in a single file can find it in both .pdf and .rtf formats on the Longer Works page.
In Which a Great Evil Is Done
Lindy waited for a long time before she took the last step from the bridge into Khurshid’s lands. First she waited to watch Khurshid disappear into the forest, and then she waited a bit longer to be sure that he was truly gone, and then she waited even a bit longer because it was hard to know when to start, and then Moe laid his big webbed hand on Lindy’s shoulder, and Cleanna took Lindy’s hand, and Lindy knew that they were both waiting for her, but she still could not make herself take that first step.
It was not that the forest itself looked so frightening. It looked like a perfectly normal forest, just like any other forest she had seen back home, without even the strange sense of rightness that lay over everything at The Crofts. It was just that Lindy had half-expected Khurshid’s country to be full of darkness and rottenness, with nasty things living in its shadows, like the things that Bilbo had found in Mirkwood, or like the things that Mole had found in the Wild Wood, but Khurshid’s country looked nothing like this. The meadow just before them was like any other spring meadow, full of dry grasses from the year before and green shoots growing up everywhere among them. And the forest looked like any other spring forest, with evergreen trees standing fully clothed in their needles, while everything else was wearing thin new robes of pale green leaves or waiting for their growing buds to cover their bare branches. It all seemed too ordinary, too natural, too beautiful to be the home of something as evil as Khurshid, and it made Lindy feel uncertain.
She knew, though, that she could not stand there forever. She could either go back to The Crofts, which she felt sure would be a very cowardly thing to do, or she could go on and try to find the cottage that she had seen in her dream. She already knew what choice she would make, but it was one thing to make a decision and another thing altogether actually to do it. Still, waiting was not going to make anything any easier, and the sun was already well past its height, so at last she gathered up her courage, and she stepped onto the cobble stones and began walking toward the forest.
The meadow was broader on Khurshid’s side of the river, and the sun was very warm, foretelling the coming summer, but the forest was cool when they reached it, and there were even patches of snow in the shade and the hollows of the deepest thickets. The forest was mostly quiet, but there were often the sounds of songbirds just out of sight, and there were squirrels now and again, and they even saw a long slender grass snake warming itself on a rock where the path let the sun into the canopy. Lindy was never quite able to forget where they were or what Khurshid had said to her, but the forest was so beautiful in the muddy sort of way that forests are beautiful in spring that she found herself enjoying the walk even still.
“I don’t understand,” she said to Moe and Cleanna after a time. “If Khurshid is so evil, why is his country so beautiful?”
“Not all evil things are ugly, Lindy,” replied Cleanna, “and not all good things are beautiful.” She gestured toward the forest, “Besides, there’s still much goodness here. Evil’s greatest frustration is that goodness continues to grow, even where it’s least expected. Evil is never able to destroy goodness wholly, and never forever. Goodness always clings on, though sometimes only in the smallest ways.”
“So, why,” asked Lindy, “is everyone so afraid to come here. It doesn’t seem so bad to me.”
“Oh, well,” said Cleanna, looking a little worried suddenly, “there’s certainly plenty in the forest to fear, I assure you, and much of it looks as evil as it is. Sometimes beautiful things only hide a deeper ugliness. That’s why Khurshid leaves the forest mostly untouched, I think, because it pleases him to see something so beautiful hiding things that are so evil.”
Lindy thought about this for a minute, and all three of them were quiet for a long time, just walking the road and feeling the cool of the forest and watching the little spots of sunlight trickling through the leaves. Then, just as she was about to say that she might like to stop and have lunch, Lindy suddenly saw something moving on the road ahead. It looked like the deer that sometimes appeared at her Grandfather’s cottage, only it was much smaller, and when she looked closely she could see others as well, hiding here and there among the trees. She looked over to Moe and Cleanna to tell them what she had seen, but they had already noticed the little deer themselves and were watching the creatures as curiously as Lindy was.
The little animals had seen Lindy and the others as well, and they investigated the newcomers to their forest with timid interest, as Cleanna began setting out their lunch. The deer came closer in fits and starts, from tree to tree, until at last they were close enough that Lindy could toss one of them a crust from her bread, and it was not long before all of the deer were crowding around them looking for food. The braver among them came right up to feed from Lindy’s hand, while the more timid stayed just beyond her reach, waiting for her to toss something in their direction. Lindy’s crusts were gone quite soon, however, and she did not know how long the food would need to last, so she could not afford to feed them anything more. Even so, the deer gave no sign that they would leave, circling Lindy and her companions as they finished their lunch and repacked their things and set off along the road once more.
For a short time the deer even followed after them, running through the trees on either side of the road. Some grew brave enough to run after Lindy’s heels, and she would sometimes slow suddenly to watch them skip nimbly around her. After a time, however, the deer suddenly slowed and then stopped altogether, as if they had come to some invisible border, and then they disappeared back into the forest, leaving the three travellers alone once again.
The path seemed much more lonely without the little creatures, especially since the sun had started to go down behind the trees. It would be a long time before its light found the horizon and things became truly dark, but Lindy began thinking that it might be time to stop and make what camp they could. She was just about to say so, when she heard Moe behind her saying in his low and gentle voice, “There’s a good spot to camp over there, Miss Lindy.” He pointed over to their left. “See that little grove of trees in the meadow there? That should give us some shelter and let us see if anyone is coming too.”
“I’ll fly up and have a look around a little,” offered Cleanna. “Maybe I can catch sight of the tree where we’re supposed to turn.” She flapped into her bird form and spiralled swiftly above the canopy, leaving Moe and Lindy to carry the three packs to the little grove of trees. It was bigger than it had looked from the path, maybe fifty trees altogether, mostly cedar and something that looked a little but not quite like birch and a few other evergreens too. The litter from the cedars smelled good, and it was soft under Lindy’s feet. Moe chose a smooth hollow to set up their camp, and he had a fire burning very quickly from the dead wood under the trees. He went off then to find enough wood to last them the night while Lindy laid out the blankets and got the food out for their supper. She could almost imagine that she was camping with her mother like they did every summer, only they had no tents or cook stove or anything like that, just a few blankets and some cold food.
Moe did not go very far, making sure that he always kept Lindy and the camp in sight, but he soon had quite a pile of wood piled up, all broken into lengths. He was just stacking the last of it when Cleanna came flitting down and settled by the fire.
“I couldn’t see anyone around,” she said, pulling her shawl around her shoulders and leaning close to the fire. “And I didn’t see any trees tall enough to be the one you saw in your dream, Lindy, but I did see some smoke from a fire or a chimney a long way off. I thought about having a look, but it was getting dark, and I didn’t want to get lost.”
“Do you think it might be the cottage?” asked Lindy.
“It might be. It’s on the right side of the road.”
Lindy was about to say something more, but just then they all heard footsteps in the leaf litter, and they turned to see Khurshid approaching their camp through the trees. He looked as he had when he had met them at the bridge, tall and golden-haired and beautiful, and he moved with the same ease, and he was carrying in his arms one of the little deer that had eaten from their hands and had followed them as they walked that afternoon.
“Good evening, Lindy,” he said, when he had stepped past the last of the trees and into the circle of flickering light cast by their fire. “You certainly have found a cozy camp for the night. You’ll sleep very well, I’m sure.”
“What do you want?” demanded Cleanna, her voice shrill and nervous.
“I have warned you about speaking to me, bird-woman,” Khurshid said sternly, but losing none of his dignity. He turned back to Lindy. “I only came to let you know,” he continued, “that you need to be more careful now in choosing the people and the things that you love.” He stroked the cheek of the deer he was holding with great gentleness. “You see, I may not be able to harm you, but I am quite capable of harming the things you love, like this little fellow here,” he said, looking down at the small form in his arms. “Isn’t it a lovely thing? So small and innocent and beautiful. You seemed quite taken with him this afternoon, and he made such a delightful sight tripping over your feet as you walked. It’s unfortunate that your affection for him will mean his death, don’t you think?”
Khurshid’s eyes met Lindy’s just then, and they were full of a terrible joy, and then she saw his free hand seize the deer by the throat and break its neck with a savage twist.
“No!” cried Lindy, and at the same moment Moe lunged forward, already changing into his monstrous self and reaching for Khurshid with his huge webbed hands.
Khurshid batted him aside with an almost casual blow. “That was unwise, my little monstrosity,” he said. “Don’t you know that the protection of your young Keeper here is good only so long as you do me no harm? I could kill you this very moment.” He squatted down beside Moe and looked into his eyes. “But I won’t,” he went on, looking back to Lindy, “as a sign of good faith to you, my dear Lindy.”
He stood again and walked to Lindy, reaching out to brush her cheek, just as he had brushed it only a few hours earlier at the bridge and just as he had brushed the deer’s cheek only a few moments ago. “Remember that I reward as well as I punish, my dear. But I can only reward once you give me the crown, and I will never cease punishing you until it is mine.” He was still holding the little deer by its broken neck, and he threw it now onto Lindy’s blankets. “This is what I will do to everything you love. So ask yourself truly how much sacrifice that crown is really worth to you?”
He turned smoothly on his heel, and then he seemed to blend with the last few rays of sunlight, and then he was gone.