The Lesser Evil
'Daddy,' The Alderman's daughter nagged monotonously, 'When are we going to the market? To the market, Daddy!'
'Quiet,' He grunted, wiping his plate with his bread. 'So what were you saying, Enerdhil? They're leaving?'
'I never thought it would end so peacefully. They had me by the throat with that letter from Varian. I put on a brave face but, to tell you the truth, I couldn't do a thing to them.'
'Even if they openly broke the law? Started a fight?'
'Even if they did. Varian's a very touchy king. He sends people to the Stockades on a whim. I've got a wife, a daughter, and I'm happy with my office. I don't have to worry where the bacon will come from tomorrow. It's good news that they're leaving. But how, and why, did it happen?'
'Daddy, I want to go to the market!'
'Shush! Enerdhil, I asked the Pig and Whistle's innkeeper, about that Syndicate company. They're quite a gang. Some of them were recognised.'
'The half high-elf is Civril, a brigand and professional murderer. Apparently, he had something to do with the massacre in Hillsbrad.'
'Hillsbrad. Didn't you hear of it? Everyone was talking about it two . . . Yes, two years ago. One man of the league of Arathor was holding some brigands in the dungeons. Their comrades - one of whom was that half-blood Civril - seized a bunch of farmers during the night. They demanded that man to set those others free. The man refused, so they began murdering farmers, one after another. By the time he released his prisoners they'd have killed a dozen farmers - and following the deaths the man was in danger of exile, or even of execution. Some blamed him for waiting so long to give in, and others claimed he'd committed a great evil in releasing the men, in setting a pre— precedent or something. When he faces the captain he argued he'd had no choice, he'd chosen the lesser evil to save more than twenty-five people — women and children - on that night.'
'The Hillsbrad ultimatum,' whispered Enerdhil. 'Renfri—'
'Caldemeyn, the marketplace.'
'She's deceived us. They're not leaving. They'll force Theocritus out of his tower as they forced that man. Or they'll force me to . . . They're going to start murdering people at the market, it's a real trap!'
'By all the gods— Where are you going? Sit down!'
The child, terrified by the shouting, huddled, keening, in the corner of the kitchen.
'I told you!' The Alderman's wife shouted, pointing to the elf. 'I said he only brings trouble!'
'Silence, woman! Enerdhil? Sit down!'
'We have to stop them. Right now, before people go to the market. And call the guards. As the gang leaves the inn seize them and hold them.'
'Be reasonable. We can't. We can't touch a hair of their heads if they've done nothing wrong. They'll defend themselves and there'll be bloodshed. They're professionals, they'll slaughter my people, and it'll be my head for it if word gets to Varian. I'll gather the guards, go to the market and keep an eye on them there—'
'That won't achieve anything. If the crowd's already in the square you can't prevent panic and slaughter. Renfri has to be stopped right now, while the marketplace is empty.'
'It's illegal. I can't permit it. It's only a rumour the half-elf was at Hillsbrad. You could be wrong, and I would be flay alive.'
'We have to take the lesser evil.'
'Enerdhil, I forbid you! Leave your sword! Stop!'
The child was screaming, her hands pressed over her mouth.
A few moments later in the Harbor..
Shading his eyes with his hand, Civril watched the sun emerge from behind the trees. The marketplace in the harbor was coming to life. Waggons and carts rumbled past and the first vendors were already filling their stalls. A hammer was banging, a cock crowing and seagulls screeched loudly overhead.
'Looks like a lovely day,' Fifteen said pensively.
Civril looked at him askance but didn't say a thing.
'The horses all right?' asked another, pulling on his gloves.
'Saddled and ready. But, there's still not many of them in the marketplace.'
'There'll be more.'
'We should eat.'
'Dead right. You'll have time later. And an appetite.'
'Look,' said Fifteen suddenly. Enerdhil was approaching from the main street, walking between stalls, coming straight towards them.
'Renfri was right,' Civril said. 'Give me the crossbow.' He hunched over and, holding the strap down with his foot, pulled the string back. He placed the bolt carefully in the groove as the elf continued to approach. Civril raised the crossbow.
'Not one step closer, night elf!'
Enerdhil stopped about forty paces from the group. 'Where's Renfri?'
The half-blood's pretty face contorted. 'In elwynn, at the tower. She's making the sorcerer an offer he can't refuse. But she knew you would come. She left a message for you.'
'"I am what I am. Choose. Either me, or a lesser." - You're supposed to know what it means.'
Enerdhil nodded, raised his hand above his right shoulder, and drew his sword. The blade traced a glistening arc above his head. Walking slowly, he made his way towards the group. Civril laughed nastily, ominously. 'Renfri said this would happen, and left us something special to give you. Right between the eyes.' Enerdhil kept walking, and the half-elf raised the crossbow to his cheek. It grew very quiet. The bowstring hummed, Enerdhil's sword flashed and the bolt flew upwards with a metallic whine, spinning in the air until it clattered against the roof and rumbled into the gutter.
'He deflected it . . .' groaned Fifteen. 'Deflected it in flight—'
'As one,' ordered Civril. Blades hissed as they were drawn from sheathes, the group pressed shoulder to shoulder, bristling with blades. Enerdhil came on faster; his fluid walk became a run - not straight at the group quivering with swords, but circling it in a tightening spiral. As he circled the group one of the villian's nerve failed. He rushed the elf, the twins following him. 'Don't disperse!' Civril roared, shaking his head and losing sight of Enerdhil. He swore and jumped aside, seeing the group fall apart, scattering around the market stalls. Fifteen went first. He was chasing the elf when he saw Enerdhil running in the opposite direction, towards him. He skidded, trying to stop, but the elf shot past before he could raise his sword. Fifteen felt a hard blow just above his hip, fell to his knees and, when he saw his hip, started screaming. The twins simultaneously attacked the black, blurred shape rushing towards them, mistimed their attack and collided with each other as Enerdhil slashed one across the chest and other in the temple, leaving one twin to stagger, head down, into a vegetable stall, and the other to spin in place and fall limply into the gutter. The marketplace boiled with vendors running away, stalls clattering to the ground and screams rising in the dusty air. Fifteen tried to stumble to his trembling legs and fell painfully to the ground. 'From the left!' Nohorn roared to another, running in a semi-circle to approach the elf from behind. The other one spun. But not quickly enough. He bore a thrust through the stomach, prepared to strike and was struck again in the neck, just below his ear. He took four unsteady steps and collapsed into a fish cart, which rolled away beneath him. Sliding over the slippery cargo that one fell onto the flagstones, silver with scales.
Civril and Nohorn struck simultaneously from both sides, the half high-elf with a high sweeping cut, Nohorn from a kneeling position, low and flat. Enerdhil caught both, two metallic clangs merging into one. Civril leapt aside and tripped, catching himself against a stall as Nohorn warded off a blow so powerful it threw him backwards to his knees. Leaping up he parried too slowly, taking a gash in the face parallel to his old scar. Civril bounced off the stall, jumping over Nohorn as he fell, missed Enerdhil and jumped away. The thrust was so sharp, so precise, he didn't feel it; his legs only gave way when he tried to attack again. The sword fell from his hand, the tendons severed above the elbow. Civril fell to his knees and shook his head, trying and failing to rise. His head dropped, and among the shattered stalls and market wares, Renfri entered the marketplace.
She approached slowly with a soft, feline step, avoiding the carts and stalls. The crowd in the streets and by the houses, which had been humming like a hornet's nest, grew silent. Enerdhil stood motionless, his sword in his lowered hand. Renfri came to within ten paces and stopped, close enough to see that, under her jacket, she wore a short coat of chain-mail, barely covering her hips.
'You've made your choice,' she said slowly. 'Are you sure it's the right one?'
'This won't be another Hillsbrad,' Enerdhil said with an effort.
'It wouldn't have been. Theocritus laughed in my face. He said I could butcher Elwynn and he wouldn't leave his tower. And he won't let anyone in, not even you. Why are you looking at me like that? Yes, I deceived you. I'll deceive anyone if I have to, why should you be special?'
'Get out of here, if you are wise Refri.'
She laughed. 'No, Enerdhil.' She drew her sword, quickly and nimbly. 'You made a choice. Now it's my turn.' With one sharp move, she tore the skirt from her hips and spun it in the air, wrapping the material around her forearm. Enerdhil walked a few paces backwards. 'Go. If we cross blades, I— I won't be able—'
'I know,' she said. 'But I, I can't do anything else. I just can't. We are what we are, you and I.'
She moved towards him with a light, swaying step, her sword glinting in her right hand, her skirt dragging along the ground from her left. She leapt, the skirt fluttered in the air and, veiled in its tracks, the sword flashed in a short, sparing cut. Enerdhil jumped away; the cloth didn't even brush him, and Renfri's blade slid over his diagonal parry. He attacked instinctively, spinning their blades, trying to knock her weapon aside. It was a mistake. She deflected his blade and slashed, aiming for his face. He barely parried and pirouetted away, dodging her dancing blade and jumping aside again. She fell on him, threw the skirt into his eyes and slashed flatly from short range, spinning.
Spinning with her he avoided the blow. She knew the trick and turned with him, their bodies so close he could feel the touch of her breath as she ran the edge across his chest. He felt a twinge of pain, ignored it. He turned again, in the opposite direction, deflected the blade flying towards his temple, made a swift feint and attacked. Renfri sprang away as if to strike from above as Enerdhil lunged and swiftly slashed her exposed thigh and groin from below with the very tip of his sword. She didn't cry out. Falling to her side she dropped her sword and clutched her thigh. Blood poured through her fingers in a bright stream over her decorated belt, elk-leather boots, and onto the dirty flagstones. The clamour of the swaying crowd, crammed in the streets, grew as they saw blood.
'Don't go . . .' she moaned, curling up in a ball. He didn't reply.
'I'm . . .cold . . .'
He said nothing. Renfri moaned again, curling up tighter as her blood flowed into the cracks between the stones.
'Enerdhil . . . Hold me . . .'
The elf remained silent. She turned her head, resting her cheek on the flagstones and was still. A fine dagger, hidden beneath her body until now, slipped from her numb fingers. After a long moment Enerdhil raised his head, hearing Theocritus's staff tapping against the flagstones. The wizard was approaching quickly, avoiding the corpses.
'What slaughter,' he panted. 'I saw it, Enerdhil, I saw it all in my crystal ball ...'
He came closer, bent over. In his trailing black robe, supported by his staff, he looked old. 'It's incredible.' He shook his head. 'Renfri's dead.'
Enerdhil didn't reply.
'Well, Enerdhil.' The wizard straightened himself. 'Fetch a cart and we'll take her to the tower for an autopsy.' He looked at Enerdhil and, not getting any answer, leant over the body. Someone the elf didn't know found the hilt of his sword and drew it. 'Touch a single hair of her head,' Enerdhil spoke, 'touch her head and yours will go flying to the flagstones.'
'Have you gone mad? You're wounded, in shock! An autopsy's the only way we can confirm—'
'Don't touch her!'
Theocritus, seeing the raised blade, jumped aside and waved his staff. 'All right!' he shouted. 'As you wish! But you'll never know! You'll never be sure! Never, do you hear, elf?'
'As you wish.' The wizard turned away, his staff hitting the flagstones. 'I'm returning to Elwynn. I'm not staying in this hole another day. Come with me rather than rot here. These people don't know anything, they've only seen you killing. And you kill nastily, Enerdhil. Well, are you coming?' Enerdhil didn't reply; he wasn't looking at him. He put his sword away. Theocritus shrugged and walked away, his staff tapping rhythmically against the ground.
A stone came flying from the crowd and clattered against the flagstones. A second followed, whizzing past just above Enerdhil's shoulder. 'Enough!' yelled the Alderman of the Harbor. 'Bloody hell, enough of that!' The crowd roared like a surge of breakers but the stones stopped flying. Enerdhil stood, motionless. The alderman approached him. 'Is this,' he said, with a broad gesture indicating the motionless bodies strewn across the square, 'how your lesser evil looks? Is this what you believed necessary?'
'Yes,' replied Enerdhil slowly, with an effort.
'Is your wound serious?'
'In that case, get out of here.'
'Yes,' said the scarred elf. He stood a moment longer, avoiding the alderman's eyes. Then he turned away slowly, very slowly.
He looked round.
'Don't come back,' said the Alderman. 'Never come back.'