Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Fiction: Beyond the Hedge (part 4)

Barley sighed and pushed back the bread from before him. The trencher was empty, the bacon picked, and the porridge eaten from the bowl. He stayed, contented, and forgot about the danger that threatened Cairaw. A smile touched his lips as he sat, for he was remembering his father, and those were always pleasant memories. When he left the Oarsman he came back to himself. Just outside the door, crushed into the gravel of the little path that wound through Cairaw's hills and turf-roofed cottages, there was a broach. It was a silver thing, fashioned by cunning elvish work to resemble a dragonfly. A warriors pin, for a cloak of blue or green that would cover glimmering mail. He ran it over his fingers, savoring coolness of the metal against his flesh.

He wondered who had lost this broach. What elven warrior now wandered without his cloak? He placed it into his scrip, to rest atop the few silver coins he carried. Perhaps someday that elf would come back through the village of Cairaw, and then he could give it him. If not, it was another trinket to honor the memory of his da'. He could place it on the wooden desk where the scrolls and rubbings of ancient stones were kept.

He went back to Hedgeman House slowly, savoring the smells of the late spring grass, the myrtle and the bladderwort with all their flowers unfolded. The river shallows were lush with fish, and the tall willows reached up from the water to caress the sky. The warmth of summer was on the wind; Sword-summer, he thought. Summer was the province of violence, the domain of leaft-bladed sword and the biting spear. He had never seen the wars, of course, but his father had told him of them often enough.

"Elf-warriors ride to war in the summer, like the men do," he once told Barley. They were sitting in the dining hall of Hedgeman House and drinking toasted summer ale, as they were wont. Old Pellitory had smiled and sketched a battlefield with his hand, describing the hills with his fingers and the troughs of land with his palm. "Dale├Ądau is a marchland, you know, and it is said that the Hierophant of the Greatwood rules over it, but in truth that is left to the warring Princes that rule the territories. Every summer one or another of them, usually more than one! decides to make war on another. They summon up their warriors and knights, proud elvish soldiers in long flowing cloaks and brilliant armor, forge-bright."

As a child, Barley had marveled in awe at the phantom images of the elvish riders conjured up by his father's words. There were the rangers, scouting ahead of the elven host. There was their general, his long hair braided with rings and medallions, stolen from the still-living bodies of his foes. The elvish host moved silently through the dining hall, drifting over table and chair. "Like a wind, they come," said da', "For they value nothing more than stealth and speed. When two elf-armies clash, they dance for weeks before coming to a head, each commander seeking out the better ground and time. Only when one has at last been trapped, his army pinned, will they give battle."

Barley tossed the dragon-fly pin in the air and caught it as it came down. He wondered if the warrior who belonged to it was even now performing the dance of steel. Perhaps they were already falling upon the goblins, slaying them; booted elvish feet ripping up the soft loam, the gore of goblin dead soaking the earth... He shook his head. Ma' had always frowned on such wild fancies in her sons, and only barely tolerated them in their father.

When he reached the front door at last he found it open again. He sighed and closed it behind him. Ma' enjoyed the feeling of the wind blowing through the tunnels of the hill, especially when the heat of the spring and summer came on, but it wasn't safe any longer. With goblins at liberty in the hills outside of Cairaw, she couldn't be going about with all her doors and windows thrown open, as though this were some safe harbor in the Lamp Country were the worst thing to worry about was a quizzical halfling lad or a fat neighbor intent on stealing a cooling mince-pie.

When he rounded the corner to da's study, he stopped still. Ma' was there, and Alder too, both seated on the lounging couch father had built in the elvish style, complete with leaf-shaped roundels on the legs. But there, over father's desk, stood a tall slender figure, fair of hair, and flesh, and eye. Long silvery locks fell down her back, and her eyes were the color of sun-faded flax or pale gold. She wore a byrnie of silvered chains and leggings of the same, and at her hip there rode an elvish scimitar. She was buckled and girt like a knight. Barley could hardly find words to speak, simply staring up at her fair and smiling face.

"This is Alandrya," ma' said grumpily. "She's need of a squire."

"Good morrow, lady," Barley said. His breath caught in his throat and he clumsily made a bow. There were a thousand thousand thoughts competing for his attention. An elf, here, in da's study! and My tunic is old and stained! Why did I wear the brown one today? and not least She's lost her pin and come to find it! By the gods, what if she's angry? He voiced none of these pressing concerns, of course, merely stayed low and waited for her reply.

"No need to bow and scrape," she said musically, and she spoke the halfling tongue instead of the elvish. Her voice was like fresh spring water trickling over the forest floor and her smile was like a refreshing summer rain. Barley stood from his bow and nodded faintly, as though to accept her words and agree with them. He couldn't say why he did it, it just made him feel safe. "Your mother is right, I fear. The Lady sent me out to be her eyes and ears, but I'll be thrice damned if any of the warrior-elves think it. Even the women think me some soft thing, for I studied arts other than battle in my youth."

"Tis a shame," Barley managed. He saw Alder smirking at him smugly, and resolved to ignore his older brother for the time being.

"But I have need of a squire to assist me," she said. "They would give me none. I was told the Hedgemen have always been friends of the elves... Your father wrote many a promising work when he was young."

"I... I did not know that." Barley could find no words to respond to her, his heart and brain both flitting to and fro like giddy glowflies.

Alder said, "I didn't think da's work was ever read by anyone."

"Oh, quite the contrary. There was a great dispute in the city over whether or not halflings could do justice to elvish history." Alder looked about the speak when Alandrya held up her hand to pacify him. "The favor fell firmly into his camp, never fear."

"I thought yew could squire fer her," ma' said grumpily, directing her malevolent gaze at Barley.

"Me?" Barley asked, shocked again. This conversation was like being pulled out of icewater only to be thrown into a furnace. He never had time to think on what was being said or swallow it before yet another strangeness was heaped upon him. "But don't you need me to—"

"Barley Hedgeman!" his mother snapped, "Don't ye countermand me before a guest! We'll not be renting those fields if the goblins're coming, so yer work there's groundless anyway. And Alandrya is offerin' ye a fine opportunity! Squire for an elf-knight, make some coin, and come home a wiser lad."

"I'm not a knight," Alandrya warned, her laughing manner quickly departing. "But I would be honored for a squire."

"Knight, knave, villain," ma' said testily, "All's one. If ye'll take him in yer train and give him coins for't, I'm sure he'd be glad te go. Wouldn't ye, lad?"

Barley stared, dumbfounded. He reached absently into his scrip and his fingers touched the cold silver of the dragonfly. Something stirred in his heart then, something that he would later say was the calling of Leesha. "I would," he said boldly. "I would indeed."

1 comment:

  1. What can be said of Barley Hedgeman other than that he is the greatest and best henchman of our time? His backstory is already richer and more involved than those of the most accomplished of freeform RP characters.