The Long Retreat No. 52

“Why else?” Alfhilde said. “If your fort can’t be held, you leave it.”

“Do the aelfr think the ontr that dangerous?” Falthejn said. “It’s true that they knew more of the world than we do. Their maps show the deserts and the sea past the mountains, things human eyes have not yet seen. I suppose they might have gone south, too.”

“If they give the aelfr trouble, they aren’t all bad,” Alfhilde said reflexively. On a moment’s consideration, she added, “Well, maybe that’s too hasty. They’re just as bad, both of them.”

Falthejn knelt next to the corpse and checks its pockets. He felt a question coming from Sif, and said, “He’d do the same to us.” The aelf carried nothing useful—a flint and steel, an inscrutable object he might have used as a magical totem, but which had no power to it now, a few scraps of paper. On his hand, however—the aelf wore a large ring with a ruby set into it, and Falthejn could feel the magical weight to it. He slipped it off the aelf’s finger and stood. Human magiker notably lagged behind their aelfish counterparts in the field laymen called enchantments. Aelfish magiker wove spirits into objects with a skill and subtlety that human conjurers resented.

“What’s that?” Sif asked.

Falthejn shrugged. “Humans and aelfr work in different ways,” he said. “We may find out this trip—should the need be dire enough, I can probably figure out how to set it off. Otherwise, it might be a mystery for years.”

“Have we any more reason to delay?” Hrothgar asked.

“No.” Falthejn turned away from the unfortunate aelf. “We should move on.”

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