Previous chapter at Tales from the Bog (I): Owl and the Frost
In summer months, when the forest on the edge of the swamp puts on its lush green crown, the Halftown thrives in the shade of the leaves. A sprawling conglomeration of wooden isles and round, pointy houses, suspended amongst sturdy trees, houses the halfling community, protecting from predators, intruders and poisonous gasses coming from the swamp. During warm summer months, spread between pointy rooftops, red sunblinds signal the beginning of midsummer market days, where rangers, gatherers and select few traveling halfling merchants and outsiders get to trade within the community on the suspended wooden isles that become miniature town squares. That is when Halftown bustles with life the most, brimming with people so much so the engineers work tirelessly to keep the town afloat among the sea of green. The midsummer market closes with offering a portion of traded goods to the spirits of the swamp, conducted by Halftown’s elders, as well as inauguration of new rangers – the most dreamt of position by youngsters in the halfling society. Midsummer market culminates with a feast that lasts until sunrise and is usually the talk of the town for the rest of the year.
This image of Halftown bustling with joy and levity stands as a stark contrast to the frosted Halftown, suspended in long winter. The red sunblinds were long removed to serve as blankets and insulation material and the only signs of life are streaks of white smoke, coming from pointy rooftops and yellow lights shimmering in the middle of the night. If one listened very carefully in the dead of night, they would hear coughs and wails of the sick and dying, as the cold, unfeeling hand of famine grips the whole of Halftown.
The mere memory of the summer sent aches down Garric’s chest as he and his fellow rangers made their way through narrow footbridges and corridors that connected different parts of town. The corridors were now hard to navigate, especially around the healer’s quarters, as halflings, too exhausted from lack of nutrition, simply collapsed on the ground next to the healers’ huts, hoping to be taken care of by healers and volunteers who looked not much better than their patients. Right now there were at least twenty individuals, men, women and children, sprawled in the middle of roofed isle, surrounded by open doors that led to the healers. Volunteers, mostly either older women or young maidens, walked around with pots of steaming water that Garric knew contained probably sixth time brew from potato peels and if they’re lucky – a little tallow. The whole isle has been illuminated by a single column with embers and make-shift torches, carried around by carers, which were nothing more but sticks wrapped around by dry linen, as wax and tallow for candles have become increasingly a luxury.
“NOOOOoooooo” a shriek pierced otherwise a silent cacophony of muffled coughs and wails, as a woman bent over an unmoving body of a young boy, no more than three summers behind him, so shrivelled and bony Garric imagined his brittle bones breaking under his mother’s sobs. Not that he could feel it anymore.
“Come on, Garric” impatient voice of Faolan woke him from staring at the gruesome scene “we need to get the catch to the storage so these poor folk could get some nutrition.”
“Nothing will help this many, damn it” Garric cursed “it’s this bad and worse in all quarters. How are we supposed to feed them with what we have? Other groups couldn’t possibly hunt more than us!”
“Keep quiet!” Faolan shushed Garric and pushed him onwards, keeping his kills of the day deep beneath his cloak as many pairs of hungry eyes followed the group of rangers intently. They continued on through poorly lit roofed footbridges and corridors, from one wooden isle to the next, all laid with makeshift rooftops to keep the snow away and all covered in slowly, painfully dying halflings.
On his way, Garric fell behind and was stopped by a silent Pssst! Pssst!
“Garric!” he recognised the voice immediately, looked around low and sure enough, behind a crammed pile of empty boxes and rubbish he caught a bobbing bush of hay hear, similar to his own. He walked over and found who he was expecting:
“Conor. What are you doing here?” he asked strictly. The young halfling in front of him, no older than seven and dressed in rugged jacket and sagging pants, made from scraps of pelts, smiled at him with a smile, missing two teeth on the side. Garric noticed that something was bulging on his chest.
“Me was waiting for you” he said with a slight lisp from the missing teeth.
“Oh yeah? I’m sure your dad would not like it to see you lurking around the footways.” Garric remembered how his uncle fussed over Conor when the little rascal would disappear in play, banging doors and shouting around like a lunatic, looking for his only son. Garric helped him multiple times to find Conor, usually in some hiding place playing hide-and-seek with his friends.
“Hey, Garric” Conor, obliviously ignored the mention of his father “I have something to show you. But you must keep it a secret!” Conor waved his hand for Garric to come closer. Reluctantly, he obeyed, squatting behind the pile of trash.
“What is it, Conor? I don’t have much time.”
“Look!” the little boy unbuttoned his jacket and leaned towards Garric to show what was behind the lapel “I called him Peevs!”
To his own horror, Garric saw a young chicken, brown, with several greening feathers to indicate it was indeed a young rooster, weeks old by the looks of it, sitting comfortably and calmly in Conor’s grip, peeking around curiously….as curiously as a chicken could. Garric could feel first bits of panic settle in as he quickly covered Peevs back with Conor’s lapel.
“What were you thinking!” Garric hissed to Conor who was smiling victoriously “where did you find that chicken?”
“I grew him in my hideout” Conor explained “found him separated from his mother and took him in. He was very cold and…you know, I always wanted a pet. Peevs is a very good pet.” Garric rubbed his eyes: he couldn’t decide how to explain to Conor that there are people out there who would kill him for the piece of that young chicken. Or the danger he put his family in, because the punishment for hiding food was expulsion from the community: Garric himself saw multiple bodies of such banished folk, frozen in the bog or killed by hungry wolves – and he could not bear to picture Conor and his family in such a state. Before he could decide either way, he heard his name being called:
“Garric?! Where is he?” he recognised Noirin.
“Quickly, get Peevs back to the hideout and DON’T LET IT LEAVE!” Garric hissed at Conor, pushing him down so Noirin wouldn’t see them.
“But he’s bored there!” Conor whispered back in protest, but immediately earned Garric’s hand on his mouth.
“Garric, where are you!” the sound of Noirin’s voice was getting closer.
“Now is not the time! I will find you later, just HIDE PEEVS!” Garric looked up to see the silhouette of Noirin standing back to where they were hiding “stay here and only run when the trees are clear, get it?” Conor nodded and stroked the bulge that was Peevs. Garric jumped up and addressed Noirin:
“Garric!” she seemed annoyed, but relieved to see him “I thought someone actually…you know, claimed your kill for themselves” she approached Garric, inspecting him, but he immediately turned away towards the footbridge, continuing on the path.
“Hey?” Noirin came after him “are you gonna say something, or just stay your grumpy, silent self? Where were you? Others were worried.”
“I think I will stay grumpy this time, thank you very much” Garric beat himself over the head for this, but knew it was better than letting others know about Conor’s pet: the fewer people knew, the safer it was for everyone and he had more time to decide what to do with the little rooster. However, his plan proved harder to execute than he thought as he felt Noirin pull on his shoulder and push him against the wall. Her eyes had that dangerous sparkle in them Garric learned of when they were sparring in ranger training.
“Listen, this place, as you see, is a gas mound waiting to explode. Everyone is on edge, either of dying or killing each other. So you will forgive me for being blatant, but don’t talk bullshit to me and don’t hide shit from me! It will stink up anyway. So out with it! What were you doing?”
Garric sighed. There was no way of talking Noirin down once she wanted something. That determination earned her a place among rangers and was definitely one of the things Garric liked most about her. On the other hand, sometimes she got determined about things that were inconvenient, such as now. No way back though.
“I met with Conor” he said, looking around for anyone to come through the footbridge “he wanted to show me something. Turns out the little git grew a chicken in secret and decided to take it out for a walk.”
“What?!” Noirin’s eyes widened with fear as she heard silent footsteps to their right. Garric pulled her next to him so it would seem like they’re just talking. Noirin was close, he could feel heat from her in stark contrast with the cold air around them.
“Where is he now?” Noirin whispered as the steps grew close.
“Told him to hide away. Will check on him after we’re done with the storage. Noirin” Garric paused “don’t tell anyone.”
“You don’t need to worry about that.” Noirin smiled weakly at him. There was a moment of silence between them. Then:
“Ah, I see lovebirds decided to coo at each other” Faolan giggled, followed by Kolm, who just stood there grinning.
“Why don’t you find new jokes, Faolan?” Noirin turned away to face the others “this one sounds more like dry wood than something to laugh about” she marched right past them. Garric approached his fellows in silence, looking after Noirin’s disappearing back with worry.
“I really don’t see it” Faolan announced, earning a questioning look from Garric and Kolm.
“See what?” Garric raised his eyebrow.
“Whatever it is that you see in her. She’s a stubborn trouble, walking around in halfling skin.” Faolan shook his head.
“Real trouble is when we don’t deliver any food, Faolan. Everything else is pretty much a happy accident. Let’s go.” Garric went forward, the image of the little chicken and Conor’s smiling face haunting his mind and the gut feeling that made his insides churn. And it was not hunger.
After the eternity that was ten minutes, the rangers reached an isle, the only one still roofless and not full of the sick and dying. Instead, the isle had was lit not only by the column of embers, but also by proper torches, carried around by sturdy halflings, seemingly better fed than the rest, dressed in chain tunics and helmets, armed with steel shortswords and crossbows, at least a dozen of them standing guard to a single, double decked door, locked with chains and an enormous silver lock, etched with runes and symbols.
Cathar stopped in front of one of the halfling men, his rangers behind him.
“We bring today’s kills.” Cathar announced. The halfling he was addressing looked annoyed, black rings under his eyes betraying sleepless nights, his bushy brown hair, untamed even by the hard iron helmet looked disheveled. All Garric saw was trouble. There was always trouble when hunger, sleeplessness and weapons were involved. The guard threw his glance around the five rangers, looking at their humble kills. The small group of hunters were slowly surrounded by twelve, well armed halflings.
“Is that all you got?” the guard who Cathar talked with grunted “and you call yourselves rangers.”
“Don’t be that way, Garvan” Cathar leaned forward just a bit, keeping Garvan’s look onto himself and away from the rest of the rangers. Garric caught Kolm’s hand moving onto the hilt of his dagger and Noirin burying her own hand under her cloak where he knew she kept the hidden shortsword. He couldn’t see Faolan, who was behind him, but felt him move his feet a few centimetres, ready for a strike. Garric felt the hilt of his own sword, the stares of hungry eyes drilling at his back “you know the winter is unnaturally long. This” Cathar shook the dead deer foal on his back “is all there is. We’re already killing the next season’s herds and until the snows recede, we can’t-”
“You with your excuses!” Garvan spat on the floor with a whiff of steam coming from his mouth: the night was turning colder, only the embers keeping the guards and rangers warm “the boys here bustin’ their ass off while folk are dying and YOU” he pointed at the rangers, now huddled together, weapons ready to be drawn “YOU probably stack the game somewhere out there, in the swamps, filling your bellies and BRINGING US THIS CRAP!” Garvan’s voice echoed through the cold air and his guards mumbled in agreement, surrounding the rangers completely.
“Garric” Noirin whispered, breathing fast.
“I know” Garric now felt like the game he was hunting so often: cornered and outmatched.
“Garvan, please” Cathar tried, but gripped his own sword harder “you’re not talking sense.”
“I’ll show you SENSE, you lying cheat!” the disheveled halfling, his eyes glossy with rage, drew his sword, followed by his guards. The rangers huddled even closer, Kolm taking out his crossbow and the rest drawing their swords and daggers.
“ENOUGH!” a loud, booming voice came from the other side of the isle, shaking the wooden structure and even causing the enormous lock rattle against the chains.
Garvan looked away from his victims and Garric could feel his blood boiling at the opportunity to slash the jugular as the guard turned. His hand was firm on the hilt, his footing steady. Why not? No one would miss this savage, this lying boor. Just one swift move and-
“Shame on you all for fighting in this situation” a small, but steady voice came from the other side of the isle, which Garric recognised instantly. He did not move his hand from the hilt of his shortsword.
As everyone turned to the bearer of the voice, there stood an elderly halfling with a walking stick of a sturdy maplewood and grey beard reaching his chest, decorated with colourful pebbles and etched stones. His eyes were having hard time seeing through eyelids heavy with age, and his seemingly frail, slightly hunched body moved gracelessly forward, aided by the walking stick. Nevertheless, the elder halfling emanated an aura which made all those around him sink their heads down in shame and respect. As the old halfling walked on, he stopped in front of Cathar and the rest of the rangers, hitting the wood floor of the isle with his walking stick twice. Whether it was the dark blue cloak, embroidered with runes and lined with black fox fur or sheer willpower that the elder halfling did not seem to be cold at all, unlike the rest of them.
“Show me the haul of today” he demanded of the rangers. They obeyed immediately, even Garric, throwing meager kills at the elder’s feet.
“This year’s young, already?” he ticked his tongue and shook his head, closing the tired old eyes for the moment “the snows aren’t receding at all and the spirits are silent” he sighed and turned towards the locked door “we won’t make it at this rate” he pressed his index finger into the keyhole, whispered something under his breath and with a clacking sound, the lock moved and freed the chains, the door opening by itself. Behind the door there were boxes and barrels, sacks and satchels – all the edible food in the town could be counted at a single glance.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Get the game into the stash and skin it!” the elder commanded at the captain of the guard, who signalled a couple of younger guards and scrambled immediately “if we preserve it fast, it might save some young ones.”
“Elder Teigernach” Garric stepped forward, ignoring Faolan’s attempt to stop him “this cannot continue. You must allow us to go south to search for more game. Give us, the rangers, some supplies, all you can spear, and let us go hunting. It’s our only chance to survive!” he immediately felt the heavy hand of Cathar on his shoulder.
“What Garric means to say is: we are hunting the next year’s herd now. This will have a cumulative effect and even if we will survive, we might need to move Halftown again or risk-”
“I know very well of the risks, ranger” Teigernach moved closer to them and as he did, Garric could feel Kolm and Faolan take a few steps back, only Noirin stood her ground “but going south with all that’s left of our stock is foolish and NOT the only option, young lad” he pointed his walking stick to Garric “as isn’t what your young blood is whispering for you to do” his heavy eyes locked on the hilt of Garric’s short sword, which he was still gripping hard “the elder council convened today and it has been decided to send an envoy to Braulic, to trade some of our crafted goods for food.”
“That is foolish!” Garric wanted to step forward, but Cathar’s iron grip held him in place “humans will never help us! They sent hunting parties after us like we were some game to them!”
“Yet they were very welcoming once black peat made it to their storages” Teigernach said definitively “the decision has been made. If you object, tonight we will gather to discuss who will go and what we can spare to sell. You may voice your objections then, but you will need to have a much more convincing attitude than now” the elder turned away towards the storage, but stopped to look back at Cathar “do be present with your pupil, ranger.”
“Yes, elder” Cathar bowed slightly, firming his grip onto Garric, who was now also held on the other shoulder by Noirin. Both could see him gritting his teeth in anger.
“Garric, you heard him” Noirin whispered soothingly “you can say what you think during the council. Cathar, you will come with him, won’t you?” she looked at their elder ranger with insisting hope. Cathar sighed and pulled on Garric’s shoulder.
“I promise to come with you if you won’t make a scene now. It is not the time.” he looked around the guard that still observed them with suspicion “do we have a deal?”
Garric pushed both of their hands away and stormed out of the isle.
“We have a deal, damnit!” he yelled while walking away.
I will show them my end of the bargain!
To be continued…
Featured picture credit: Wooded view near Barbizon by Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch, 1900. Currently displayed in Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.