Chapter 4 – The Crofter’s Tale

The witch brought the man a cup of steeped tea: ithelwee leaves removed and a splash of milk. He thanked her graciously. His hands shook as he drank, but his breathing slowed and some of the color returned to his face, benefits of the tea, Tildy knew.

“My daughter, Tildeneth,” said the witch, falling into the usual story they used when someone asked about Tildy.

“M’pleasure,” said the man in a perfunctory way. Tildy smiled, but said nothing. The man’s preoccupation intrigued her, though she didn’t feel as suspicious as she expected, given his unexpected arrival. She attributed her ease to the witch’s relaxed demeanor. The man kept his eyes locked on the witch, as if she might disappear if he looked away for even a moment. Tildy held back a smile, further intrigued: he did know the witch.

As though sensing this unnecessary vigilance, the witch sat at the table and pulled her chair close to him. She covered his free hand with her own, another telling sign to Tildy—the witch generally avoided contact with others. Tildy had noticed this at a young age: the witch had something of an obsession with personal cleanliness when it came to people, something that did not extend to the dirt of the garden.

While the contact put one fear at ease, the man’s eyes frequently flicked toward the windows, as though expecting to see some pursuer. Tildy continued watching him, reading the language of his movement, as well as that of his voice. He was scared, obviously, but it was deeper than the worries encountered on a long and shadowy road. And whatever fears he had, Tildy thought there was nowhere else in Empyrelia he wanted to be.

He gave the witch a wan smile. “They said you wouldn’t remember me – remember any of us – but I knew. I knew y’well, didn’t I?”

“Perhaps, child,” she said kindly, “at least, you and some others did. The trees have shed many leaves since.” Confused, Tildy looked from one to the other. They looked close enough in age that ‘child’ didn’t seem the appropriate term for him.

“Aye,” the man agreed, taking no offense. “Though you look much the same as you ever did, if a bit more kempt, if you don’t mind m’saying.”

“I do not,” said the witch with a smile that recalled fond memories. “And your eyes still have that boyish twinkle.”

“Ah, yer too kind,” said the man with a dismissive wave. “But I thank you just the same.”

Tildy wasn’t a fan of small talk, especially the kind that made her feel like an intruder. She shifted her feet and tried to feign interest, though experience had taught her she wasn’t very good at it. The man noticed and turned. “And you, lass, I’m sorry for m’ rudeness. It’s been a long road for this ol’ crofter. I’m a farmer y’see, from up near the Hearkenfells. Them’s mountains north a’here, if you didn’t know. You can call me, Dess, like everyone else. Well, everyone but her,” he said, indicating the witch. Catching her eye, he paused in thought. “Did you say y’named her ‘Tildeneth’? Like the stinky weed?” he asked.

“Tildenethia is not a weed,” Tildy said coolly as she crossed her arms. The witch hooted as the man turned to face Tildy.

“No offense, young lady, no offense,” he said, holding up his hands. He seemed truly apologetic, but Tildy never let anyone off that easily.

“‘Tildy’ will be fine,” she said in a peevish tone that was still respectful to her guest.

The man’s flustered face changed to delight as his eyes travelled to Tildy’s chin. “Oh ho! I see someone’s gotten a dose of that brown manure she calls medicine,” he said with a sideways look at the witch. His deep, rich laughter caused Tildy to smile in spite of herself. A sound of pure joy, she could tell it would grow to fill any space. “Ah well, I’ve smelled worse, eh?”

The witch did not appreciate his description of her smudge remedy, and so ignored his question. “You have travelled far,” she said, changing the subject. “And you seem to have danger’s shadow at your heels. What brings you so far, Demensen?”

“Aye, danger’s shadow indeed! But I don’t rightly know how to put into words what the danger is, if you take my meaning.” Tildy tilted her head, trying to do just that. He wrung his hands and looked back and forth between them, his eyes returning to the window. “There’s an evil in my land,” began the crofter. “It’s not orklins or anything like that, though rumor of them’s come, too. But shortly after the Spring Starfall last year, travelers started bringing more tales of dark things than we’ve heard in our lifetime. Tales of somewhat different. Worse.” He took another drink of tea.

“Sounds like a matter for your lord.”

“Aye, you’d think. When the Baron Stoneward held court, he would hear the occasional tale from a crofter or traveler, y’know, some large shadow moving in the trees. Rumor of some ol’ troll thumping down the other side of t’hill. The baron dismissed ‘em as drunken tales or fairy stories.” He looked at Tildy to explain, “There’s not much to do in Harsdale, and the drink causes a bit o’mischief, y’see.” The witch shook her head.

“As the stories became more frequent, more difficult to ignore, still he did nothing. Many suspected because no nobles was affected. He wasn’t caring a wheat stalk for seed, if you get my meaning.” Tildy got his meaning, even if she didn’t grasp the parallel. In her mind she pictured some fat lord, living in gluttony off his people’s work to keep his pantry stocked. Perhaps his attention would be focused when he began to starve.

“Then the old Harshhay’s farm was destroyed. Flattened. This weren’t no fire and it weren’t some storm, as the Baron’s castellan suggested. I saw the ruin m’self! It was like some father o’giants had stepped on the house and barn. There wasn’t a single upright board on the yard. Slaughtered animals everywhere. And that poor family all, gone. Like they was nothing. I don’t think the little ones made it out the house, bless ‘em.” The crofter took a dirty rag from his pocket and blew his nose. “Not that anyone had the heart to look. Who could sleep again with a memory like that?” Tildy shook her head in agreement: she certainly couldn’t.

“Disappearances began. Reports of travelers and traders on the Fare Road, never making it to the Shard.” He looked at Tildy. “That’s the baron’s castle. We’d never knew they was missing, but people came looking for them. And then some of our own never returned. Old Grey, the blacksmith on a shoe-run. Nag Hobbs and his son, taking a horse to trade. Widder Sey and her old farmhand Sedge. All unaccounted for. Too many for accidents or highwaymen, says I. And many others agree, I might add.” He paused to take another drink.

The witch’s brow was knitted. “What was the baron’s reaction? Surely, he could not ignore all of it?”

“He said little and did less!” The crofter smashed a meaty fist into his hand. “I hear he stopped holding court. Put his lady wife in charge. She didn’t care a whit more than the Baron, that was clear from the first, they say. Eventually, they closed the gates to all visitors, but whether that was the baroness’s command or the castellan trying to please his lord, I’ll never know. You know how those obsequiant are.” Tildy wanted to ask, but the man said something that drove it from her mind. “The result’s the same and getting worse!”

“What do you mean?” she asked, quite appalled at the story.

“I mean, trade’s stopped coming down the Fare Road and we’ve stopped bringing goods up to Traybend, the village on the river. Now, it’s early in the year, so we’re not hard put for the winter stores yet, mind, but we’ll have less coin and fewer supplies to get us through! Traybend does good bit o’ business, what with all the river traffic. But us of Harsdale town and them’s in Dethelwain were getting nervous. They were the closest village, and between us we could meet each other’s needs. Then that stopped, too.” The crofter looked unusually grave, and he passed a hand across his face.

“It happened to Dethelwain, as well,” said the witch quietly.

“What happened?” asked Tildy, looking from the witch to the crofter. And then she understood. “No!” she said, clapping a hand to her mouth in horror. “The whole village?”

“Aye,” said the crofter, quietly. “Like the farm, but worse. Much worse. Burned to the ground or flattened. Every house, shop, and stable. Berrenbee, he’s the bard, he found them. All of ‘em. The whole village. He was in hysterics for a week. Been having delusions ever since.”

“That’s horrible,” Tildy said with barely a whisper.

“His tale was so grisly, no one had the stomach to bear further witness to the scene. He’s not touched the drink since!” He punctuated this with a sharp nod of his head, as though this were a particularly unpleasant thought. “But enough was enough. Our village and everyone we knew was in peril. We had to take matters from Fate’s hand since no one else would.”

His voice strengthened. “Some wanted to cross the grand river Dandolen and find the garrison at Ferebind. Some wanted to appeal to the Steward himself, but it’s a long ways north to frozen Yirrengard. And some doubted his diminished power following the death of the Last King,” he said, touching his heart respectfully. “I, and few like me, wanted to find the Trollcharmer, the only person we knew who’d fought a monster. She’d been rumored to have settled in dark Eddlweld.”

“The who?” asked Tildy. She looked at the witch, who again bore the resigned look of one who knew the conversation would come to this point.

The crofter gaped at her, and then looked at the witch. “Y’ve never told the tale? Yer own daughter?” He threw his head back and laughed heartily. Slapping his knee, he said, “Goodness me! Such a tale as never you’ve heard, lass, if you don’t mind m’ saying.”

Tildy gave the witch a bemused, inquisitive look, but her adoptive mother was frowning. “I do mind,” said the witch sharply. “That was many a year ago and more. I am thick in the bark and brittle in the wood from long, long years. The tershemel – Trollcharmer, you say – does not exist anymore.”

The crofter gave her a shrewd look. “So y’say, but you forget that I saw you in the market today. There’s more young sap flowing in them branches than you’d care to admit, says I.” The witch blushed, making a derisive noise. “Don’t you answer me ‘til you’ve heard m’whole tale.”

“Go on then,” said the witch, though Tildy did not hear encouragement in the words nor see it in her crossed arms and glowering face.

“I left more ‘an two fortnights ago. An easy journey it was to start. But then I got weird feelings.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Like I was being watched. Followed. Never no sign or sound was there, just small gasps of wind I heard, but never felt. But I could tell, if you get my meaning.”

Tildy understood and nodded. She had keen senses, often perceiving things the witch didn’t. The prickling sensation and raising of hairs was unmistakable. It usually made her feel like a trapped rabbit.

“It’s a lonely road, but generally a safe one, if you take precautions. I started to hear rumbling behind me, as of distant thunder. It were unnerving.” He looked at Tildy again. “Like a following thunderstorm, but each boom a footstep crashing upon the ground. Sometimes, I’d wake in the night, feeling the ground shake as something large passed me in the dark. Sometimes I felt it was following me; other times, we just happened to be going the same direction. I needed more protection, so I started sleeping by day and hiding myself at night in trees off the road.” He sighed, his body rising and falling as though the breath started in his toes. “I stopped a night in village Greywetherton and felt safe enough there. Things have quieted since.”

The crofter looked hard at the witch. “Whatever it is, it’s ranging out further and further.”

“And it seems no longer satisfied with travelers or farms,” Tildy added.

The crofter nodded. “Where it comes from, we have no idea. But we guess from the south end of the Hearkenfell mountains. Greywetherton’s a fortnight’s travel from Harsdale and that puts plenty of folk in danger.”

The witch sighed and nodded. “And Wayfahren a fortnight from there.”

Tildy jumped up. “It would practically walk past our front door! If it follows a straight line from Greywetherton to Wayfahren, it would skirt the forest’s edge!”

Tildy and the crofter looked expectantly at the witch, who was now deliberately staring out the window, as though trying to see something far away. When she finally spoke, her voice was even and resolute. “Such work is a young person’s trade, and not for one such as I. Make no protest, my mind is set.” Tildy watched his features slide down his face, hope melting into despair.

“But do not lose faith!” she added, turning around. “Wayfahren’s crossroads bring many peoples of many kinds. In the morning I am expecting a delivery from the market. The man, Fietha, is,” she paused as she often did when trying to describe their roguish friend, “cleverer than most when it comes to these things. He will be able to arrange a meeting with a fighter who can help you. Perhaps a Dwarf Cleaver or and Elven Wardreven.”

The witch stood up before the crofter could respond. “It is settled then. Since it is too late for you to find lodgings in Wayfahren – not to mention too dangerous to travel at this time of night – you will stay in our guest room tonight and leave with Fietha in the morning.”

“Aye, must be gettin’ on t’midnight.” The crofter suddenly looked very tired and old. He followed her silently up the stairs to the spare bedroom.

Tildy thought about everything the man said, and while the unknown monster was certainly thrilling, it was the insights into the witch’s past life that intrigued her most. Thinking it would make a wonderful book, she was reminded of her own discarded book in the library. As she was retrieving The Firedrake, the witch arrived, a slight color on her cheeks. Unable to resist, Tildy asked, her words all a-tumble, “Trollcharmer? And Gudwyn? You seem to have many names! And to face a troll and live!” she marveled.

“Another tale for another day,” said the witch, her voice and features heavy with exhaustion. “I have put all of that behind me: the misunderstood creatures, the dungeon hunts, the courts of queens and kings. Or at least, I thought I had.” Tildy stared in wonder. She’d never imagined or had an inkling of such tales. “These were never things I wanted to do anyways. My heart’s desire was to live as you have known me here, and have, well…” she paused, an old sadness crossing her face, “have a life much as you have known it with me. But I had a talent for those adventures and people needed help.”

“People still need help,” responded Tildy. It was more direct than she intended, but her tone was gentle.

“Yes, families need my help. Here. With cures and midwifery, not running into the woods to battle dangerous beasties,” she waved her hand dismissively. “Needs like those are better served by trained knights or seasoned warriors, not some old woman in a brown dress.” She sighed, the deep, weary sound of one after a long day of toil. She kissed Tildy’s cheek. “Good night, Tildeneth.”

“Good night, mother.” The witch gave no response and silently climbed upstairs. Tildy turned back to the library and frowned at the book in her hands. Hoping to find a different one to read in bed, she perused the nearest bookshelf.

The Wayward Prince and the Girl of Stone was a dreadfully sad book that brought nothing but tears.

Pandemonium Grammatok, which was a dreadfully boring instructional on translating the common tongue into Berserklin.

An enormously thick book, pretentiously entitled Mellifluent Descent, seemed as likely to break her ribs as put her to sleep.

Revenant Feare had terrified her when she was six and she’d swore she’d never open it again.

Tildy gasped at a fourth book, recognizing part of the title. Tershemel Nifique. That was the word the witch used for ‘trollcharmer’. Excited that she might read similar stories, she removed the book and turned to the first page. Seeing that the text was in Elvish Silvarin, she returned the book to the shelf in disappointment. While she could read much of the language, it required more concentration than she was willing to offer this time of night. With a sigh, she returned to the stairs, carrying The Firedrake under her arm.

Remembering there was a stranger under their roof, Tildy closed her door and locked it. The witch might know the man well, but Tildy did not. She pulled her dress over her head and shook it straight. Hearing a tiny clink of metal at her feet, she looked down at the floor, where she spied a glitter in the candlelight. The pin! She’d quite forgotten it since her return from Caraban Losh! As she picked it up, she silently chastised herself for neglecting this lost treasure, this lost clue.

A shiver prickled her skin as the coolness of midnight passed through her linen underslip. Tildy quickly put on a thick nightdress and wrapped a robe around herself before slipping into bed. She studied the pin closely by short candlelight. It was long, like a stickpin, but the head was too encrusted with dirt to see more detail. She thought she spied a glitter of purple. Her thumb rubbed away the grime, though there was a tarnish she could not remove. Silver? With a little more rubbing, the lump at the end revealed a silver wolf with tiny purple gems for eyes. Garnets or amethyst, most likely. She didn’t know much about jewelry, aside from the colors of stones that were mentioned in books. Those same books often described the heraldry of kings and knights and noble houses, but she couldn’t recall a single one that bore a dancing wolf with purple eyes.

She rolled the pin between her fingers, imagining that this wolf could really dance. When her candle flickered and died, Tildy let it be, feeling the irresistible pull of sleep. She drifted away into slumber, curled within the warmth of her robe and blankets. She dreamed of people carrying sacks of purple jewels and fabulous treasures, laughing at the misfortunates who’d drawn the wrong kind of luck on Healing Day.

Morning arrived. And for the second day in a row, Tildy woke up late. She rushed downstairs to find the crofter and the witch talking at the table over breakfast. She greeted them with sleepy gibberish, to which they responded with cheerful good-mornings of their own. She was about to sit at the table when the witch tutted.

“I ask you, who goes to bed with dirty fingers?” the witch said to Demensen. Tildy looked down and saw the dirt she’d removed from the pin the night before. The pin!

“Every mother’s son who’s born a crofter,” he laughed in response. “And your young miss.”

Tildy ran back upstairs to her room, remembering that she’d fallen asleep holding the pin. She tore apart her bed, and not finding it, she looked under the bed and on the floor nearby. Think, she told herself, remember falling asleep. She’d been looking at the pin, the candle died, and—the candle! She returned to the bedside and saw the pin resting beside the candle holder. Feeling a relief she didn’t quite understand, Tildy changed clothes and placed the pin in her pocket.

When she returned to the breakfast table after washing her hands, the witch and crofter were drinking tea and laughing like old friends. Tildy smiled to herself: she rarely saw the witch in such a mood. The bright smile and rosy cheeks suited her adoptive mother well. It warmed Tildy’s heart and removed the final mistrust she’d harbored toward the man. She gave them a proper greeting as she sat down to eat.

The witch said to the crofter, “Yesterday would have been better, since the town was bursting with Healing Day guests, but most of the travelers are still in Wayfahren. ‘Late drinks make late departures’, as they say. And he will know the better ones for you to speak to. As a matter of fact, I am soon expecting—” there was a knock on the door, at which the crofter jumped.

Tildy paused her eating and rolled her eyes. The witch always knew. “He’s here.” Demensen looked uncertain, but he said nothing as Tildy walked to the door to reveal her most favorite person in the world. “Fietha!” she said, giving him a hug.

He returned the embrace. “Well met, and again so soon!” he said, stepping across the threshold with her in his arms. “I felt an urge this morning to make a delivery. Earlier than is my custom, but you know how these urges go,” he said, giving Tildy a knowing wink and a feline grin. He spotted Demensen and looked at the witch. “And here you have company.”

The witch got up to welcome him. “We were just talking about you.” Fietha arched an eyebrow as she made introductions. “We have need of your expertise.”

“Buying or selling?”

“Hiring.”

“Ahhhh,” he said with a knowing look at the crofter. He said, “You’re in luck! There are yet many travelers in town, plus those stopped on their way to the tourney in Ethelbard. For the right price and promise of renown, we can convince one or more to detour themselves for you.”

Demensen frowned. “The renown I c’n promise, but I’m light on coin.”

The witch waved a dismissive hand. “I might not be able to make the journey, but I will take care of that! Old friends and all such good things.” Demensen looked relieved, and Fietha’s tight smile became a broad grin. The witch gave him a shrewd look. “And I expect friendly exchange and an honorable fighter,” she said to him. “Or I will curse the axles of every wagon you own.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“I would.”

“Yes, I believe you would,” Fietha laughed. “But first, let us finish our delivery business, and then I will drive my new friend to Wayfahren, where we shall see what we shall see.”

Tildy helped the two men unload the goods and foodstuffs. She giggled every time she looked at the wagon’s axel, imagining it breaking and then hearing Fietha’s colorful and imaginative curses.

They were nearly done and Tildy watched Demensen carry one of the last parcels into the cottage. Fietha was adjusting the straps on the wagon and Tildy decided it was now or never.

“Fietha?”

“Hmm?” he responded without turning around.

“Can you do something for me?”

The man turned around with a smile. “I love doing favors.”

“You love collecting owed favors,” she responded.

“True, that is my favorite part of the bargain. Never undervalue the currency of a favor, Tildy.” Seeing the look on her face, he changed his tone. “But I see this is a serious something.”

Tildy held up her hand, revealing the pin in her palm. “Do you recognize this?”

Fietha leaned forward to inspect the object, angling his head and fixing his merchant’s eye. “Steel, maybe. No, the tarnish suggests silver.” He looked closer. “Amethyst, I’d wager. Rare these days, quite rare.” He talked to himself as he examined it, “Common in construction — but the materials are not afforded by the commonfolk, especially the gems. Could be used for anything. Clothing, most-like. There are faint scratches on the tip from a metal cap that would keep the point from poking the skin, I imagine. Likely for the very clumsy or the very young.

“The other end, though,” he said trailing off. “A dancing wolf? I’m not familiar with the symbol.” He straightened up. “What is its significance?”

“I think it might be a clue to my past.”

Fietha raised an eyebrow. “And you come to me and not to her?” he asked, indicating the cottage where the witch could be heard talking to Demensen.

Tildy released the breath she was holding. “I’ve sent her on so many wild gander chases over the years—”

“You thought you’d send me on one?” Fietha said with a grin.

Tildy returned the smile, but she didn’t feel it. His supply of jests seemed endless, even in serious matters, and she wasn’t in the mood.

Perhaps he sensed her thoughts, for he said, “I joke, of course. I would be happy to take this errand for you, Lady Silverleaf.” He finished with a small bow.

This time, Tildy’s smile was real, as was the blush spreading across her face. “Thank you,” she said, handing over the pin. Fietha casually slipped it into a pouch as the witch and crofter exited the cottage.

The witch handed Fietha a small bag bulging with coin. As Fietha felt its weight, he looked curiously at the witch. “There is something else you request?”

The witch looked evenly at him. “I have never known you to question excess payment.”

“Nor do I now,” he replied, looking curiously at the crofter, “but I assumed additional instruction from you in exchange.”

“Hmm,” replied the witch. Tildy knew the witch didn’t like being obvious, but Fietha was one person who could always read her. He enjoyed the witch’s discomfiture and missed no opportunity to expose it. The witch continued, “There is nothing else, except an expeditious transaction. No detours.” Fietha’s smile nearly faltered, but he inclined his head to show that he understood.

Tildy and the witch said their goodbyes to the men and returned to the cottage as the wagon disappeared into the trees.

“You think your friend will find someone like that in Wayfahren?”

“Undoubtedly. Fietha has a way about things like this. It is uncanny, really.”

“Since I won’t be able to witness any of that Trollcharmer prowess, how about a monster story now?”

“Perhaps we shall talk of myths over luncheon. Time to tell a story with your mixing spoons and knives, Tildy Foodcharmer.” The witch sat down, shaking her head. “But, oh, that was a weary tale that Demensen told. And troublesome.”

“What do you make of it?” Tildy asked as she began her food preparation.

“I am uncertain. Not certain at all. It is brutal enough for gobbledohs or orklins, but bigger in scale than is usual for them. And quieter, too. They always leave clear signs and befoulment with their attacks. I thought perhaps a troll at first, but it seems smarter than that. No one seems to have seen it. And survived, that is. I do not know. I do not know.” The witch trailed off, deep in her thoughts.

Tildy worked away in the kitchen, humming and merrily preparing a savory stew. “Perhaps one day, when it’s over, your friend the crofter will come back and tell us how his story ends!”

The witch did not answer. Tildy saw her frowning and it worried her.

They ate the stew with crusts of bread. The witch was unusually quiet and Tildy knew there would be no stories of monsters or magic. When she nleft abruptly without finishing her meal, Tildy knew better than to ask why. Through the kitchen window she watched her adoptive mother pacing the garden, finally stopping to rest on an old log that lay beside a glowing smolder-shrub. A favorite spot for contemplation. Even at this distance, she could see the witch’s face etched with concern, thrown into sharp relief by the soft red light of the bush.

Tildy cleaned up the dishes and went to her room, thinking about the pin, the crofter, and the previously unmentioned adventures of the witch. Many following days passed similarly: Tildy completing her chores; the witch quiet and introspective. As the days became weeks, Tildy came to notice an increased watchfulness in the world around them. It was like the wind had died, a herald of the coming storm. That electric fear returned to the hairs on her neck.

Something was wrong.


© Michael Wallevand, November 2018

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