The following morning, the elves were the talk of the village. There was but one little tavern in Cairaw, the Beleaguered Oarsman, which rambled along the river. It had been an elven-hall once, when the elves still sent lords to Cairaw to govern. The old stone towers had long since tumbled down and the debris been used to sink piers into the soft mud of the riverbank, and the undercrofts dug into the hill had been converted into three taprooms, a brew-house, and an overlarge buttery. The kitchen was above-ground, of course, rebuilt over where the elvish kitchens once stood, though it was finished in sod and turf rather than fine white shingles.
The Oarsman was humming with rumors. Vary Bagdon had started in on his wine as early as breakfast and by lunch was predicting the return of the dragons. Alder chose not to go to the Oarsman, so Barley was there alone. He knew that ma' and Alder would be having a row—a big one—up at the house. Ma' would insist on going ahead with the fieldwork, perhaps even hiring hands, but Alder was spooked. That left Barley sitting by the river-windows in the tavern, drinking a thick mug of ale and eating sops and pease porridge.
Someone had heard that the army at Madonlo had crossed the fords in the night, signalling the beginning of a mass offensive against the moorlands. Mikal Holbyr, one of the few resident gnomes in Cairaw, offered his own opinion about the whole the matter. "Why is it," he asked pointedly, "that whenever trouble threatens the Daleädau, it's our lady that's gotta send her elves to fight? Why is that none of those other princes do anything about it? It's not right! Next summer, or the summer after, they'll be jumping all over her, just you watch. Raids and farm-holds burned, cause they know she's wasted her strength defending them."
"Oh, come on," said matron Corey. "You know that ain't true, Mikal Holbyr, and don't think you kin can get away with stirrin' up trouble!" She was a cantankerous old matriarch; the Coreys owned the Oarsman and though her grandson Jon did the day-to-day work, the tavern was hers. "I remember when you was just a lad and the lady had to fend off a real threat on the fords, an' no one said boo to her the followin' summers. They don't want our land. They're better off lettin' the Laituran folk do their guarding and watching and fighting against the moorlands. Who'd wanna hold the river, anyhow?"
"Good for trade, the river is," replied Odo Farfinder. He was widely recognized as being the most traveled soul in Cairaw. When he was young, decades and decades ago, he had traveled the world as a hired sword. All the boys looked up to him, all the women looked down on him, and all the men were nervous in his presence. His right ear was nicked at the top, and the last two fingers of his left hand had been crushed beneath a boulder in his travels. "I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that no one wants this land. But you're right about one thing, Good-wife Corey," he said, tipping his head in her direction, "And that is that no other Prince wants to defend the border."
The matron nodded finally, as if that settled matters. She was rarely in agreement with Odo just on general principle, so the fact that the two had sided together stifled further conversation on the subject. Barley found himself staring out at the mercurial waters of the great river. The sun was shimmering on the little wavelets, and there were fishing boats out beyond the shallows. The reeds rustled gently in the breeze below the window, and Barley's mind began to wander to far-away shores.
He began to think of Laitura, the elvish-city on the far side of the river where Twywynne Mindalethe ruled. At the right angle and on a clear day you could see it from Cairaw, its ancient marble houses reared high upon the banks where they spilled into the lake. He had walked among its somber gardens and sprawling manors many times to sell wheat and rye, hide and bone, cattle and sheep from the pasturelands. Once, many years ago, his father had taken him inside one of those gigantic marble palaces.
Alder had stayed in the market, but he probably wouldn't want to have gone anyway. He had no use for the strange elvish things that Pellitory cared so deeply for. Barley was different, always attentive, always ready to listen. Da' had explained as they walked, passing through long unkempt greens and unwalled gardens along winding paths:
"The elves don't plan their cities, like the old Mileans did. And they don't feel the need to live so close like men, or halflings. They spread out, unplanned, into great expanses, leaving groves and meadows in the middle of their cities. Laitura is a bad example, because she is old and half-gone now. There are more ruins than houses these days, but if I ever take you south to the Greatwood, you'll see just what I mean. They build where they will, and their roads are rarely straight."
Then, they arrived at the palace da' had been seeking and he said, "Come now, my boy, and I will show you a wonder."
A wonder it was: it was the place where all their sheep went every autumn when they sold off the excess of the flock. An ancient courtyard-house of solid white marble with silver gilding, it was covered in carvings. Like all elvish buildings, the walls were cut in reliefs of blooming flowers, twining vines, and animals of all sorts in repose and peaceful rest. In the courtyard they saw that there was no family garden and idols, but rather a buzzing workshop of the wind-folk. They were grinding lime and mixing it with water in great vats.
There were massive frames everywhere, and they were covered in hides that had been bathed with the caustic lime-waters and stretched with weighty stones and strong elven rope. Pellitory waved a greeting at one of the working elves, and turned to Barley to say, "You see, my son, even our little farms and fields back in Cairaw play a hand in the greater world. This parchment will be used to make histories and ballads, and will be given to kings, princes, and mage-lords, all." He ruffled Barley's hair playfully.