It was afternoon on the tenth day when they reached a high level plain that overlooked Birrill Shire, the home of riluds. Between the plain and the Shire was a river that separated the two landscapes and a stone bridge to cross to the other side. Irene looked around and noticed a number of small hills, some with black pipes sticking out of them. A delicious scent of food filled the air. The warm sunlight touched the green plains as shadows of clouds gently hovered past the hill-dotted land.
“Welcome to Birrill Shire,” Robin said to Irene.
“Where are the houses?” Irene asked.
Robin pointed to the hills. “See those hills? You may have noticed the smoke coming from those pipes there. Those hills are actually rilud-homes. If you go closer you will see the door to those homes.” The rilud led them across the Stone Bridge.
“We once lived in houses, but after so many invasions no matter how many times we rebuild our homes they would still be destroyed. So, we all had to live underground.”
“Is it safe to stay here?” Irene voiced her concern.
“It is, though some of the riluds have left the shire to go east, towards the Cobalt Mountains where they seek sanctuary amongst the dwarves. Those you see here are those who just refuse to leave.”
“Pride,” Robin replied after a pause.
As they approached the Shire, little rilud children ran up to them greeting them warmly as they clung onto their thighs and legs.
“Uncle Robin! Uncle Robin!” said the children as they jumped and danced around them. “You’ve brought guests! You’ve brought guests!”
Robin laughed heartily as he greeted each one by touching their heads. Irene looked at them in wonder thinking how small the children are – almost the height of an average three year old. All of them had curly hair in various shades of fall leaves. Yet, these children spoke in a language that was mature for their age.
Irene noticed Mito and Treenah whisper something to their twins. The twins immediately went with some of the older children to announce the Shire residents their arrival.
“You should have seen the big trout we caught in the river, Uncle!” said a rilud boy excitedly, “Aunt Luna has cooked it for Master Caspar’s birthday.”
“Oh, she did?” Robin responded in wonder. “So we are having a party are we?”
“Yes! And look at the new dress, I am wearing, Uncle. Do you like it?” asked a rilud girl as she twirled in her emerald green frock.
“That looks lovely on you, Matilda,”
“Cousin Jasper is taking us to the pond to hunt for fireflies for the party! Don’t you think it will light up that party?” said another rilud boy.
Irene smiled to herself as she listened to the children.
“Uncle, who’s this?” Matilda asked.
“This is Irene. She is a friend,” Robin told them.
The children stop what they were doing and studied her for a moment. Then Matilda and the little rilud boy who caught fireflies approached her and each took her hand in theirs.
“She has pretty hair,” Matilda said.
“Her hair is like Mr. Burrows’s hair,” the rilud boy announced.
With that they were approached by a crowd of riluds who welcomed them to the Shire.
The party was held inside the rilud home of Master Caspar. Wooden tables were long covered with crisp white linen tablecloths, all starched and ironed for the occasion. The tables were loaded with food. A great cake decorated with sugared fruits and violets on fluffly white icing graced at the end of the table. The ceilings and walls were decorated with ivy and snowdrops, the favourite plants of Master Caspar – compliments of Mr. Samuel Wisetree the gardener. On the table and the fireplace mantels were the jars of fireflies the children caught before the party, to give the dark places of the home some light.
All sat on chairs and benches lined along the walls of the great hall of the rilud-hole. Irene stared in wonder at the surrounding about her. She had read about this in books and dreamed about such a place. Now, she was in the midst of what she wished to be reality.
“The number is much less than the party we had years ago,” explained Robin. “Ever since the Order had appeared, many of our relatives, friends, and neighbours left this shire to places outside this kingdom. They feared the Order and did not want to end up in any form of danger.”
“If it is so dangerous living here, why do you stay?” asked Irene.
Robin leaned closer to Irene and whispered into her ear, “We heard that the High King is making his move here – in Korda. Those of us who remain here in this land are those who did not have the chance to leave this kingdom and those who decided to stay because they want to see the High King’s act in Korda.”
Irene thought over what Robin had just said. “Are you saying that the one you call the High King is going to do something about the Order?”
“Oh yes, many of us who are on the High King’s side believe so. We are just waiting for him to give us the directions. Only,” he sighed, “we have to wait until he tells us and it has been nearly forty years since our ruler had died.”
“I thought you said King Ephesus II was your ruler? And who is this person you call the High King?”
“King Ephesus II was the ruler of Korda appointed by the High King himself. The High King is the ruler of Ditté and Earth. He is the father of Ishual.”
Finally, Master Caspar appeared, led by one of his nieces. He walked slowly and feebly, yet for his age his dark eyes twinkled with a youthful spell as if he still had that youthfulness within him. All wished the old master a happy birthday. Then, Robin suddenly took Irene’s arm and brought her before the ancient rilud.
“Master Caspar,” said Robin, nearly shouting into the old rilud’s ear, “This is Irene, she is a visitor from Earth.”
“Don’t shout, my lad!” said the old master, “I can hear as well as you can!” Master Caspar peered through his gold-framed spectacles at Irene. Then sitting down in his favourite armchair, he beckoned to her. “Come hither, young lady,” he said to her.
Irene anxiously approached the rilud. Lifting his spectacles higher to get a better look at her, he nodded with satisfaction. “Ah, yes. A lovely young lady, and by the mark on your forehead you are one of those who met Ishual. Not many in Earth have met Ishual.” Slowly he beckoned to her to come closer. Thinking that he wanted to tell her something, Irene bent down to his level. To her surprise, the old rilud gave her a kiss on the cheek.
Irene touched her cheek and did not know how to respond.
“I have given you my blessing child. Forgive me for startling you, but I could not help finding you attractive.” he smiled as he gave her a wink.
Slowly, a smile spread across her face, as Irene shyly looked down. Then she quickly gave the old rilud a quick peck on the cheek. “And this is my gift for you, Master Caspar. May you be forever blessed.”
The party went on with much feasting and dancing. Irene found herself fitting into the atmosphere. She had danced a number of rounds, mainly with children, the adult dances she watched. As the musicians began to play a much more upbeat tune for a dual, a traditional rilud couples’ dance, Irene saw rilud men and maids began to take places by making two rows – one for the men, the other for the maids. It was during then, Irene saw a familiar face.
At a small table in the corner sat a beautiful girl with shiny black hair. Excitedly, Irene approached her. “Yuli? Yuli Kamikawa?”
The girl turned at her name.
“It’s me Irene. Do you remember me?”
Yuli’s eyes grew in recognition at seeing Irene, then immediately replaced with something? Fear? Shame?
“Oh, hello,” Yuli greeted meekly. Oh, why does it have to be her? Why does it have to be me in this painful state?
“What are you doing here?” Irene asked. “It has been since elementary school!”
Yuli remembered it well. Irene was her closest friend during her brief stay in Canada while her family was there for her father’s business. Though it was only for one month, the girls became inseperable. By the time they entered junior high, they have lost contact with each other.
“Yes, it has,” Yuli replied weakly. “Excuse me, I have to step out a sec. It’s good to see you again, Irene.” Yuli immediately left. Oh, Irene, I wish you have met me under different circumstances, she wept inwardly as tears began to fill her eyes.
Irene watched Yuli leave wondering if she said something wrong. Just then, a hand grabbed her wrist and pulled her into a group watching the dual take place as rilud men and maids began to dance in pairs.
She heard someone call, “Douglas! Douglas dear! Where are you?” as the hand drew her away from the dance.
Looking behind her, past the dancing partiers, Irene noticed a young rilud maid with golden curls searching for someone in the crowd.
Irene looked before her and saw in the soft golden light coppery red hair. The individual, who happened to be a rilud, had his hand circled around her wrist. They passed a back door that was wide open and came to a garden dimly lit by the light that streamed in from the indoors.
“Hey! Let go!” she barked, slapping his hand from her wrist. “Where do you think you are taking me?”
The person stopped and turned. His face went from determined to something that was a mixture of surprise and shock. “You’re not Yuli!” he exclaimed.
“Obviously not!” she retorted, then immediately added, “Yuli? You were trying to run off with Yuli?”
He put his face to his palm. Then passing his hand over his face futilely wiping away the rosy tint that appeared to darken at the realization of a mistaken identity, he apologized with a pained look on his face, “I – my sincerest apologies, my lady.” Though he called her “lady” his tone was genuine.
As if he was suddenly exhausted, he leaned against the low stonewall. He looked up at her. Irene looked back. The rilud appeared to be eighteen or nineteen, but then he may be much older since riluds appear younger than they actually are. He was quite handsome, at least to her standards. However, she decided that her judgments may not be accurate, since her friends had complained about her taste in the opposite sex. Pushing her thought aside, she cleared her throat.
“I’m Irene Solomon,” she held out her hand, “What’s yours?”
“Douglas Burrows,” the rilud introduced himself. The moment his hand closed over hers and their eyes made contact he felt a still voice in his heart say, She is the one.
“Hello?” the girl asked.
“Uh, yes! Irene, pleasure to meet you!” he vigorously pumped her hand.
He didn’t know what he did, but Douglas saw her face breaking into the most beautiful smile filled with laughter he had ever seen. He knew Yuli was beautiful, but this one, this girl called Irene was different.
Away from the party as far as her feet would take her, Yuli ran. Once her legs got tired she slowed to a walking pace, letting her tears flow freely since no-one was there to see her. She arrived at the shire’s stone bridge. She leaned against one side of the bridge, responding to her bodily desire to rest. The water was dark, its presence hidden except by the moonlight reflecting off the water’s surface.
She stared at the inky rippling surface. It must feel nice to fall in, came a thought. Must be nice to have all that water wrap around me, drowning out all this shame and filth I am carrying. Perhaps it will wash away my curse with me. The sound of the flowing waters was inviting. Come…Join us…Let us embrace you…Let us wrap you in our depths and help you forget your pain, the waters seemed to say.
“Look out!” A strong pair of hands grabbed her and pulled her back.
Yuli felt herself hurled to the ground.
“What are you doing!” Philip shouted at her. “Are you trying to kill yourself?!”
Yuli got up in silence, leaning against the sides of the bridge.
“Oy!” Philip lunged at her again, “What did I just say?”
“I’m tired! I just need to lean against something!” Yuli defended.
“Here,” Philip grabbed her and half-leaning her, half-pulling her away from the bridge.
“Where are you taking me?”
Philip said nothing as he sat her down on a fallen log a little ways away from the bridge. He took a seat next to her. The two of them sat momentarily in stony silence.
“Do you go around stalking girls and then rescue them?” came the question from Yuli.
“What?” Philip felt like he just got a slap in the face as thanks for rescuing this one. She may be very beautiful, but she was rather rude.
“Because if that is your past time, I think you just rescued the wrong girl.”
“Now look here!” Philip stood up to give his argument only to have Yuli get up and walk away.
“Oh! And you are very welcome!” he shouted after her.