Continued from Tales from the Bog (II): Owl and the Frost.
If Garric was not in the warm safety of his home, he would be fuming like a halfling fresh out of the hot spring – so angry he was he couldn’t keep the cloak on, instead tossing it into the corner of his attic, pacing back and forth from one corner to the other.
They’re wrong! his mind raced.
South is our only option! Only chance to survive. Natural or not, the frost should be receding there. At the very least, we’d know the extent.
Garric bit into his thumb.
I’m not wrong! Humans will never trade with us. If we’re starving here, so are they. South. I must get south.
“Garric!” a melodious female voice came from down below. The young ranger froze in place and sighed.
“What is it, mother?” he yelled back without trying to be polite.
“I don’t like your tone, young one” the pleasantness of the voice was instantly replaced by cold commanding needle that pricked right into back of Garric’s head “come down this instant!”
He sighed again, but obeyed and slid down the ladder to a miniature corridor where one door right in front of him led outside into the spiralling stairwells of the Halftown’s numerous living quarters and the other led into a living area, with a large hearth in the middle of the round room, cupboards, shelves and chests lined the walls with window shutters closed to keep the cold out. A table was there also, next to the hearth, which was roaring with fire now, a kettle whistling next to it and an older halfling in warm, but patchy clothes and puffing a long, ivory pipe and staring at his grubby hands. When Garric appeared at the door, the old halfling lifted his gaze and fixed his striking golden eyes from underneath bushy silvered eyebrows on him. Garric approached slowly, feeling as if he did something naughty, much like in childhood.
“She’s over there” the old halfling indicated towards the other side of the hearth, where Garric heard, over the sound of kettle’s whistle, clanking noises of tin brushing against more tin. Garric nodded to the cloud of smoke that was his father and made his way round the hearth.
“Is he there? Garric, move the kettle away from the fire, it will wake the spirits at this rate.” Garric stopped turned around and pulled the kettle away from the roaring flame, leaving it hanging on the rotating hook. The whistling died almost instantly. Garric continued towards the clacking sounds until he reached his mother: a stout woman with long silver braid, reaching her waist and dressed in green, woollen dress with an apron in front. She had a brown, leather belt affixed on said waist, full of pouches and dried herbs, signifying her position as a healer. The clanking sound she made was from a pot being stirred with a large ladle – a fifth broth (if Garric counted well) of potato peels and tallow. She looked at Garric with penetrating green gaze.
“Well, your cheeks have surely fallen” she stated grimly, although she herself looked exhausted and tense “but no matter, there’s gristle in the soup for tonight, sit down and you’ll eat.”
“I’m not hungry” Garric mumbled, but only earned a stern gaze from his birthgiver.
“Nonsense, you haven’t eating a spoonful in two days, young man and don’t pretend otherwise on my account” she opened the bubbling pot and started pouring almost transparent broth with tiny bits of herbs and said gristle cascading down into wooden bowls. She passed two of them to Garric and waved him away to bring the sustenance to the table. Father already finished his pipe and looked down at the poor attempt at cooking with mixed expression of gratitude and disgust. When all three were at the table, Garric’s father said a small prayer in thanks to the spirits, wishing them to wake up sooner from their sleep. Then all three dipped their spoons into the bowls and ate unenthusiastically. The broth tasted like slightly salted water with random spice of thyme and a rubbery bite of gristle or potato peel. The whole experience reminded Garric painfully on why he absolutely must go south.
“Your uncle came by recently” Garric’s mother spoke out, clearly delaying the next spoonful of watery soup “he asked if you could go looking for Conor again. The little rascal took off somewhere and you’re just so good at finding him. Could you please go?”
Garric’s insides sunk. Through the anger towards the elders he completely forgot about Conor and his little Peevs the rooster OR the fact that he promised to come and see him and figure something out.
“Sure, I’ll go look for him” Garric stood up, but before moving he looked at his parents “there’s something else” he said silently.
“Are you finally going to present Noirin as your chosen?” mother spoke with hope Garric thought impossible in Halftown “we could all use some levity in this situation.”
“What? NO! It’s not like that at all” Garric felt heat travelling to his cheeks and immediately changed the subject “it’s about rangers.”
Garric saw his father stuffing another pipefull of tobacco so finely chopped it looked more like dust. His mother looked at him attentively, broth forgotten and cold on the table.
“Father Gallcobhar, Mother Mavoreen” he addressed them officially “I will be joining the elder council tonight and regardless if they will forbid it, I will go south, looking for game. So will other rangers, if not all of them.”
“South?” Mavoreen frowned “why would you put yourself at such a risk? The frost is one thing, but the bog is full of wild and viscious animals and you’ll be all alone. Not to mention-”
“Mother, I’m well aware of the danger, I’ve been a ranger for a while now” Garric interrupted her “but we can’t go on like this. The humans will never trade with us, nor will a miracle happen and the frost will melt. I have to go. All the rangers have to. And we will bring food to survive the winter or die trying. That is my final decision.” Garric’s heart fluttered uncomfortably as he saw Mavoreen’s eyes glisten in the light of the fire.
“You always took this ranger business to seriously” she whispered “and now you will go and get yourself killed. My only boy!” she sobbed. Gallcobhar put his larger, grubby hands on top of hers and patter her on the head. He then looked at Garric and nodded.
“If you have to go, go. Spirits guide you, my son.”
Garric felt the lump in his throat being dangerously close to bursting, so he ran out the door without saying a word, quickly gathering his travel gear and down the ladder and into the corridors of Halftown. He heard his mother’s muffled sob when passing by the living area, but left before the lump in his throat burst into tears. He never got used to seeing any woman cry.
His search for Conor was not much of a search, as he knew exactly where to go: a back corridor behind the forges that is mostly used as a warehouse, but has been abandoned since the famine started and all efforts went into conserving food and helping the dying. Conor got into using it as a hideout with other boys of Halftown. Garric cursed in crude dwarvish when he saw a group of five guards in leather tunics standing in a circle, backs to him. Through their padded legs he could see a bush of hay hear, but most worryingly, he could hear the distinct squawking of a chicken. As he moved closer, he saw one guard with a crossbow on his shoulder holding Peevs by the neck and laughing.
“Let him go!” Conor yelled from the ground and the five laughed.
“Let go of food? Do you know what happens to little thieves and their families when they hide food?”
“No, please, I just want Peevs back, please, you’re hurting him!” Conor was crying, tears streaking down his dirty, round face as Peevs squawked and fluttered his wings in protest of his captor.
“Well, it’s the frozen ground for this lot” on of the other guards kicked Conor who squeaked in pain and curled up on the floor “nasty food thieves. They managed to get a whole chicken too.”
“Unfortunately, this one’s a rooster, won’t get eggs from it, but the drumsticks should be tender” the guard that held Peevs examined the bird, lifting its wings and turning its legs “still young, you know”. The rest of the group giggled at the prospect of eating tender, warm chicken and didn’t hear footsteps right behind them.
It happened fast. The anger which Garric felt took over him completely as he drew his shortsword and cut through the arm that was holding Peevs. There was a scream, a thud and a squawk. Then Garric moved towards curled up Conor and while the guards were surprised, took out a strap of bandage from his pouch and fastened it around the boy’s eyes:
“Do not take it off until I say so, understand?”
“Y-yeah” Garric could feel Conor tremble under his palm. He looked straight at the four remaining guards that prepared their own swords.
“You can get out now, vred” as dwarvish did not quit being useful to Garric to describe the lowlifes he saw in front of him, masquerading as keepers of order while abusing the weak. This very concept sent Garric’s blood boiling over, skewing his vision: he no longer saw halflings, but mutated demon spirits, sneering and biting at him.
The halflings attacked triangle, one at the front, another one and two on either side. Garric flanked, cutting low through two pairs of kneecaps. There was yelling of pain and blood. Garric, as if in slow motion, saw a sword’s edge cutting the air through to him, leaned back to avoid it, slammed his own shortsword into the blade, sending sparks flying. Another blade glided towards him, its owner roaring fiercely, while the previous one still had his blade locked with Garric’s. He did not have time to think. His free hand slipped down the strap of his grey cloak and as he pushed back another attack, he threw the cloak towards the charging halfling. Surprised, he lost his footing and collapsed on the floor. Garric jumped over the cloaked guard and charged the remaining one himself, locking blades again and again, until Garric pirouetted into the opponent’s upper arm and slashed it open. As the last guard collapsed, Garric stood there, finally able to breathe, frantically, adrenaline instantly receding. He turned around and his eyes went wide: lying on the floor, his knees bloody, a guard pointed the loaded crossbow straight at Garric. Garric turned to move away, but at that moment, as if out of absolutely nowhere, Noirin came and knocked the crossbow out of the guard’s arms, making the bolt fly into the roof, completely missing its intended target.
Noirin didn’t say a thing, but moved to Conor, trembling and hugging a loudly squawking Peevs. She hugged him and buried his blinded head into her chest, looking at Garric.
“Get Conor out of here!” he ordered, picking up his bloodied coat. He could hear a lot of footsteps coming closer from one corridor. Noirin didn’t object, simply picked up with the boy with his chicken and silently slipped away through a smaller footbridge that led straight to the living quarters.
Garric turned towards more guards pouring into the forge isle, surrounding him and checking the injured. The sight was damning: five guards, injured, one armless and Garric, blood all over him and his sword. Garvan, the captain of the guard walked towards him, looking around at the carnage, and stopped right in front of Garric, holding his stare.
“Your little arrogant ass of of a ranger is done, you butcher” Gavran growled “I will cut your arm off and let you off on the ground, let the wolves have you!”
“Try it” Garric suggested as two other guards walked around him and locked his arms behind his back. Gavran punched Garric in the face, causing blood and a tooth fall out of his mouth. Garric didn’t make a sound. Gavran cocked his arm for another blow, but it didn’t land.
“Gavran, stop!” the calm voice of Elder Teigernach flew through the room, causing everyone to freeze in their actions. Him and five other Elders, all with long beards and either blue or green runic cloaks entered the isle, all looking stern and distant, yet commanding such authority that made all guards and slowly growing crowd of curious onlookers parting in awe. Elder Teigernach approached Gavran, who moved aside immediately, eyes on Garric, pushed down on his knees, arms bound painfully behind his back and blood slowly drying on his face. Garric now resembled a trapped ferocious animal.
“Explain yourself!” Teigernach demanded.
“Elder, please!” Gavran objected “it is obvious what happened: he butchered our brethren – no- his own brethren! He should have his limbs removed and thrown to wolves, as he deserves!” Gavran roared his convictions, but Teigernach merely looked up at the stout halfling with indifference.
“That type of punishment is just if all your men were dead, Captain Gavran” he looked around, eyes grazing over injured, wailing men that were already tended to by healers “although injured, your men appear to be alive. Now let us hear what Garric has to say about this incident.”
Elder Teigernach did not wait for more objections from Gavran, but simply turned to Garric and motioned him to speak. Garric did not speak immediately.
“They were hurting my cousin Conor and they refused to stop.” Garric said, assured.
“Bollocks!” Gavran roared “no doubt he started it! My men would never hit a child!”
“Oh but they do, Gavran” Garric stood up, looking straight at the captain “it’s not the first time and you know it. This is what hunger reduces us to: animals, fighting over pieces of meaningless scrap and mob justice captain doles out left and right!” Garric felt anger bubbling inside of his stomach, threatening to burst out again “don’t you see, venerable elder? We are no longer a community. We’re simply bidding our time until we either kill each other in hungry anger and I don’t want to be here when that happens” Garric gulped, many pairs of eyes following him. His own eyes found Noirin in the crowd: a slight nod from her indicated Conor has been taken care of. With more confidence, Garric continued “in fact, I won’t be here, because you will likely banish me for what I did. I’m not proud of it. But I won’t hide from it and they deserve it, just like I deserve punishment.”
“You’d choose to leave?” Elder Teigernach turned back to the rest of the Elders, all exchanging unheard words amongst each other.
“Yes!” Garric said with confidence. There was a murmur rippling through the crowd “and I will go south as I originally intended and bring game…or my own demise. Whichever comes first.”
“If you return empty handed, we won’t be able to let you back into our community, young one” Elder Teigernach shook his head “but neither can we keep you with the fact of your crime.”
“And you’re not actually considering this, Elder?” Gavran stepped between the Elders and Garric, addressing the crowd “this…halfling…I can barely call him such anymore…mercilessly hurt his own kind without clear purpose. He must be punished, his crimes reviewed, not given what he wants!”
“Going alone into the frozen bog might be punishment enough” one of the other Elders spoke, his voice hoarse and silent, but it sent an agreeable murmur through the crowd “are you prepared to face the frost alone, child?”
“I am” Garric confirmed. Gavran was about to speak, but was interrupted by another voice, stronger, deeper.
“He won’t go alone” Cathar stepped out of the crowd, followed closely by worried Kolm and Faolan with his hands firmly on the hilt of his sword: he kept his eyes firmly attached to Garvan “my rangers just don’t do that.”
“Unacceptable!” Gavran yelled, few voices joining him from the crowd “he’s to be punished, not sent on a merry expedition!”
“The captain is right, I’m afraid” Elder Teigernach nodded in unison with the rest of the Elders “he is to be tried by frost on his own, as due punishment.”
“Then I am to be punished too” Noirin stepped out of the crowd as well, sending it into a slight gasp “for I helped with the fight. You don’t think Garric could take alone all these fine warriors, do you?”
“Lies!” a wailing voice came from the back of the crowd: it was the armless guard, a stump, bandaged and drenched in blood now hung where his forearm used to “he was alone! ALONE!”
“Lie easy, poor halfling” Noirin said impatiently “the fact of the matter is, I know what Garric was doing and didn’t stop him. I deserve punishment too.”
“And so do we” Faolan, followed by Kolm and Cathar, joined “we knew about it and didn’t stop him. Not one bit. Nada.”
Elder Teigernach observed the scene with heaviness in his heart, yet knew he observed what was left of the halfling communion: brotherhood, sacrifice for others, togetherness. Hunger has changed them indeed. Let them go. Just Garric, he obviously did it. They need to go south anyway, we discussed it. We have to let them go. At worst, less mouths to feed. What if others will follow? We will be left without professional hunters. How about Braulic? LET THEM GO! Thoughts of all Elders flew through Teigernach’s mind as the solution stared him in the face.
“Garric. You and your your team are hereby banished for conspiring to injure the guards of Halftown. You will only be allowed to return on the condition if you bring game to last us the winter.” Teigernach fell silent, but only for the moment “everyone else – spread the word: all rangers are to go south to hunt for game. We must take this chance or Halftown…will be no more.”
Rest of the night moved extremely fast. As Garric’s bonds were cut, he was quickly taken in by Cathar and others and led out to collect gear and prepare to leave immediately. They were given some old and dry food and skins full of water, arrows were sharpened for all rangers as most if not all, from all sections of Halftown prepared to leave. Before Cathar’s team lowered themselves down the rope ladder, Elder Teigernach gave them his blessing and that of the spirits, and despite everything, wishing them to return. Garric only realised he was about to part from his teammates when his feet his the snow and early morning greyness consumed them.
“We travel together for now, then we split at the entrance to the bog” Cathar fixed his hood so only the scared nose stuck out: the cold was bitting hard at everyone. They traveled in silence, listening for movement of wolves or other animals, but only their own footsteps interfered with the frozen world of trees, marshes and the grey sky.
They did not say much at the bog. Garric gripped hands with Kolm first, then Faolan, who wished him to return for his own wedding at least and winked at Noirin, who merely rolled her eyes. Then it was Cathar’s turn. He wished a good hunt for all and a safe return.
“And if not” he said “may you join the spirits and watch over us.”
The men moved away and soon could not be seen or heard. Noirin stepped next to Garric. He could hear her breathing in the chilly air and exhaling steamy heat she carried within her. Garric suddenly realised he wanted to hold her somehow, but didn’t know if he should, so instead he just stood there, listening to her delicate sounds, etching each one in his memory.
“I will come back, you know” he said finally “and I’ll figure out how to get you into that wedding. With me.” he felt a promise chaining him to the person next to him, but he couldn’t look at her. Garric felt her move and then pulsating heat spread through his cheek where her lips landed.
“I will want to see you try” she whispered before moving away. She smiled at him, but he only frowned, feeling worried and confusingly delighted at the same time: given his situation, delight was the weirdest part “good hunting, Garric. I’ll be thinking about your frowny face all this time.”
“I-” she didn’t let him finish, only whisked away into the marshes, leaving Garric alone at the edge of the maple forest.
Garric breathed in deep and exhaled.
The hunt has finally begun.
To be continued…
Featured picture credit: Wooded view near Barbizon by Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch, 1900. Currently displayed in Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.