Erden brought the mallet down one last time before dropping it onto the clover at his feet. Stepping back, he frowned at the wooden rails still waiting to be hammered onto the fence. There were so many things that needed to get done today, but the saberwolf had left the fence in a shambles. Erden wouldn’t risk another day without mending the broken gap.
The farmer took off his straw hat and wiped the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. Fifty odd winters working the family farmstead had seen the auburn of his youth retreat into the scattered wisps of color now peppering his gray hair. Tucking the cloth back into his belt, he looked to the cloudless sky over the hills to the east to check the sun. He still had hours left of the morning, enough time to finish mending the fence by noon if his tired hands could match his stubborn heart.
A breeze gently made its way up the hillside from the south, carrying the sweet scent of lily of the valley and conifers. The smell reminded him of better times, and he allowed himself a moment to enjoy the mixture of pine and floral scents carried from the edge of the woodlands. He looked a half-mile from the hillside and could see the carpet of wild lilies at the edge of the spruce forest that held so much memory for him.
It was there that he had been married, and not six years later where he had lain his wife and stillborn son to rest under a simple stone. Erden still smiled to look upon the place however, for it was also amongst those lilies that he had given his daughter to her groom a year ago. Her joy at being wed on her twenty third birthday was equal to her father’s relief that she would avoid a spinster’s lonely fate, and do so in the arms of a man who loved her greatly.
A magpie cried as it flew up the grassy slope, and Erden turned his attention back to the hillside. He looked up to the crest, northward, to the thatched roof of Hilltop House and its outbuildings well above him. The farmer checked the fenced pasture halfway between himself and the hillcrest, where his chestnut colored cows calmly grazed without a sound. Erden bent down to retrieve his mallet from the clover, but stopped short when a voice shouted his name from the foot of the hill below him.
Erden turned and peered past the broken fence. Fifty yards down the slope, a large pale brown cow looked back at him. Holding her rope lead was a small man a head shorter than the animal’s shoulders waving his walking stick at Erden. He was no stranger, and the farmer had known the dwarf at once from his voice.
“Oh, well now, I ain’t expecting a cow… or a physician,” Erden shouted down to the dwarf. “Don’t tell me something’s wrong with Meleen or the baby again!”
“Nothing like that! She’s fine! Your grandson’s fine. The coughs are long gone!” the child-sized man shouted up the hill in a warm baritone.
Erden blew out a sigh of relief, “Oh, that’s a bit of good news I could use.” He peered down at the visitor and slapped some dirt off of his trousers, “But if that’s the case, then why the hell are you here, you damned sawbones?”
The dwarf started up the rutted wagon path that snaked its way around the low boulders of the slope. “A proposition, my friend! Or perhaps a favor between two freemen!” he shouted before being nearly pulled over by the cow’s resentful tug and refusal to follow.
“Do you need a hand with her, Bruno?” the farmer shouted down.
“No,” the physician replied turning around to look at the cow with a squint. “Come on, my friend,” he whispered calmly as a gust of lily scented wind billowed the green tartan of his long coat.
Erden raised an eyebrow as the cow relented and walked up the hill without a further tug to her lead. “A proposition, eh?” he said leaning his wiry frame on the fence. “And here I thought that I wasn’t in trouble.”
Bruno smiled as he guided the cow past clusters of daisies and dandelions on the rising hillside. “You don’t know the half of it, my friend!”
Bruno Blackettle walked briskly up the hill with his knobby walking stick, an item that had cracked the shins of more than one deserving highwayman in his hands. The physician was a good sort, and Erden trusted him. He wasn’t alone in this, for the man had saved many lives along with Erden’s from the pestilence that had stalked the countryside three years ago. Born to dwarven fishmongers on some flat island in the Albine Sea, his bawdy tales from his days as a student physician in Maduc and the capital were favorites in the village of Neep. They were stories that were always welcome, be they told in the tavern or at the bedside of the infirm.
The rustic freeman turned his attention to the dun colored cow behind the physician as they came closer. Her coloring set her apart from the Olst Reds he kept, but what drew his eye the most was the pair of saddle bags hanging across her back. Erden pulled himself straight at the sight, “You had better not tell me there is a shortage of mules and the Briar Fellowship needs to conscript my ladies for some quest…”
Bruno stopped a few paces from the farmer and the cow halted beside him. “We’re not that hard-up!” he laughed stuffing his cudgel under an arm. He offered a hand out to Erden which he shook firmly. The top of Blackettle’s head stopped well short of Erden’s shoulders, but his jovial smile always seemed to have presence far greater than his size. His face was broad and ruddy, with balding brown hair and bushy mutton-chops to either side of his clean-shaven lip and chin.
The two men unclasped their hands and Erden took a step past the dwarf to get a close look at the large cow to his side. “An Ozmanan Bos,” he said tipping back his hat and letting out a long whistle. “The only other one I’ve ever seen was at the Grand Fair when I was a boy!” The farmer leaned in and looked into her deep brown eyes before the short horned animal narrowed her gaze in return and gave an annoyed snort. Erden took a step back from the cow, and then checked the lines of her flanks from a prudent distance.
The physician cringed a little as the dairyman continued to inspect the animal and planted the tip of his cane on the ground. “Yes, and about that… As I said, I have a proposition for you my friend. I know that times have been hard, and I think you will find this a very good offer.”
Erden scratched his unkempt, greying goatee as he looked at the dwarf. “If you’ve brought her here for a trade, it would have to be a very good deal to be one I could afford… She’s a real beauty,” he smiled. “A real bell winner!”
“Well!” the cow said in a young woman’s voice. “At least someone still appreciates me!”
The dairyman jumped backwards, then stood frozen as the heifer lifted her head and looked away from him in a haughty manner.
The physician turned and addressed the cow, “Come now, don’t be that way! We talked this all over already…” The cow didn’t look back, replying with only a humph as she whipped her tail.
Bruno looked to the freeman who hadn’t moved a muscle, “Please forgive her, she isn’t quite herself.” The dwarf watched the remains of Erden’s smile collapse even as Bruno forced a grin of his own.
The farmer took off his straw hat, then calmly pulled out the handkerchief tucked into his belt. “Alright, Blackettle, I draw the line at talking cows,” he said dabbing his forehead. “What do you want to drag me into here?”
The dwarven physician pointed to the cow cordially with his cane, “Erden, let me introduce you to Luwain of the Briar Fellowship.”
The dun colored animal gave the lean man a squinting look followed by a snort. Erden squinted an eye of his own in response. “Hello, Mame Luwain,” he said cautiously.
“Hello, Marn Erden,” she replied.
Erden put his straw hat back on and turned to Bruno. “I’ll admit that she’s got a good grasp of the language, but the Fellowship has lowered its standards if talking heifers are now joining your adventuring company.”
Bruno fumbled with the lapel of his coat. “Yes, well you see, until the other night she wasn’t like this…”
“I am Luwain, wizardess and lone disciple of Naza the Red,” the cow said.
Erden looked at her. “Oh, you’re the young woman with the flaming lightning that —”
“—Routed the host of Urtz?” she said thrusting her snout high with pride. “I am the same!”
“—Burned the river bridge down?” Erden finished.
“The same!” Bruno said with exaggerated gusto before he winked at the both of them.
Erden pinched the bridge of his nose and shut his eyes, but couldn’t stop his smile. “And now you’re… Well, you must have had an odd turn of fortune, Mame.”
“Yes. A very odd turn,” she replied in an annoyed tone.
With his eyes closed, Erden thought that the low alto of Luwain’s voice could easily match that of a woman of his daughter’s age. “Well, if you are in need of a kiss to undo some miscast spell of yours, I ain’t sure if I’m your man…”
“This wasn’t my doing! Why would I attempt something so ridiculous!?” Luwain protested stomping a hoof.
“Forgive me,” Erden raised his palms to wave away his comment. “I know nothing of wizards or their ways.”
“She speaks the truth,” Bruno said stepping in to disarm any growing anger from Luwain. “The other night we cornered Moannette at last, and interrupted a magical ceremony she was conducting.”
“You don’t mean that sorceress in league with Urtz, do you?” Erden asked the dwarf.
“Indeed I do,” the physician nodded. “We got the drop on her, but as usual, there was a fracas,” he sighed. “In the fray, she struck Luwain with this transmogrification—“
“—Specifically,” Luwain interrupted, “she struck me with a consecrated scepter of Hught.”
“Yes, and that’s an important point,” Bruno nodded looking at Erden.
The story began to make more sense to Erden. As a dairyman he was no stranger to Hught the Cow-Mother, having an altar to her in the barn and a cairn in the pasture dedicated to the Goddess.
“I think she was more surprised than I was when the horns sprouted,” Luwain said shaking her aforementioned adornments. “So the real mystery is figuring out what Moannette had actually planned to do with such a potent artifact… If she hadn’t broken it over my head first.”
“Moannette absconded in the confusion that followed Luwain’s transformation,” Bruno explained nodding in agreement with the pale brown cow, “but we’re certain that it has something to do with the Stonebulls. The ritual was right in front of the one that sleeps off the Burntwood trail.”
Erden felt a cold chill at the mention of the Stonebulls. As a boy, his father had made him sleepless for weeks with tales of the fire breathing monsters from his grandfather’s time. “Ahyuh, that sounds like a worthy concern,” the freeman said
Bruno thrummed his fingers on the carved ram’s head handle of his walking stick, “Yes it is. Now we have reason to believe that Moannette is headed to Giflem, and so that’s where we are headed as well.”
“Dangerous business, and it’ll be almost a month to get there and back. I don’t have much to sell you in way of provisions, if that is why you two are here.”
“That’s not it my friend, the Fellowship has cobbled together what we need for the trip. I’m here about Luwain,” the physician replied as the heifer whipped her tail and shot him a cross look.
Erden gave a bemused look at Luwain. “Come again? Isn’t she going with you to Giflem after sorting this out with a spell? Or a potion, or whatever?”
Luwain flicked her ears and looked down at a cluster of daisies near her hoof. “I’m afraid that I don’t know anything of metamorphosis arcana, and I’ll need far more time to craft a counter-spell than what the Fellowship can afford.”
“Oh, just speak the whole truth,” Bruno said waving his blackthorn cudgel before turning to Erden. “What she says would be true if she could still cast a spell at all, but Luwain’s transformation has left her unable to work any magic.” The dairyman had never seen a look of embarrassment on a cow, and raised his eyebrow at the physician’s revelation.
“I might only need more time to adjust, my magic could still come back…” Luwain protested before her voice trailed off with a crack of emotion and she turned her head away.
The farmer pondered the situation as he watched the dwarf give a comforting pat to Luwain’s side. “We’ll sort this out yet, never fear,” Bruno said. Watching the exchange, Erden imagined his daughter and how frightened she would be trapped in such a state.
The dwarf looked to Erden, “We’ll be stopping at the grand Hught temple on the way to Giflem, the high priestess there owes me a favor. We’ll speak on the matter of the scepter and getting Luwain back to normal, but in the interim I’ve come to ask if you would look after Luwain until we return.” The physician’s tone was unembellished as he looked the farmer steadily in the eyes, “My friend, you are the most trustworthy and competent man I could think of for this task.”
Erden pondered the request for a moment before he shook his head. “I want to help, and I certainly owe you the favor many times over for all you have done for us. But I ain’t the man for the job… I barely have time to keep up with repairs and chores by myself as it is, let alone the added work of playing host to a talking heifer! After losing my contract with the cheesemaker to Gwillis this winter, I ain’t making enough coin to afford even one hired hand this spring.”
Luwain looked at Bruno, “I still say that I am as fit to make the journey to Giflem as the others. At the very least, I can carry things,” she said looking back at the pair of saddlebags she bore. “And my magic could return along the way. I can make myself useful, not a burden…”
Bruno raised a hand to stop her pleading. “As much as I want to see a cow shooting lightning bolts, you know how unlikely that is to transpire. Your presence will slow us down, and if there is a scrap you know what danger you will be in.”
“He’s right,” the dairyman said drawing the turned heads of the pair. “You’re not a horse, Mame. You’d never keep up with a mules’ pace without getting sick or breaking a leg.” Erden pointed out a spot on the rolling hills to the east, “Now, if you two go a mile down the road and see Cleia and her sons, they’ve a fine pasture and good reputation—”
“—We’re prepared to compensate you for your efforts.” Bruno produced a small leather pouch from his green coat and tossed it to Erden. He opened the purse and took stock of the contents. Inside there were enough gold and silver coins to not only replace the entirety of his fencing, but also to rethatch the leaky roof of Hilltop House and hire several stout lads to do the work for him.
“You fellas be careful on your way to Giflem and back. Luwain will be fine. I’ll take good care of her.” Erden pulled the purse strings tight and tied them to his belt.
The physician smiled and nodded while Luwain tried to sear the top of Bruno’s balding head with a dirty look. “Good, excellent,” he smiled walking up to Erden and shaking his hand. “Can you promise me that you won’t speak a word about this to anyone?”
Erden noticed Luwain’s worried gaze upon him and matched it before he spoke. “You have my word. I’ll keep my mouth shut if she can and I won’t advertise her… peculiar predicament.”
Bruno leaned on his cudgel, “Actually, I’m more concerned about safety, for the both of you. Who knows what Urtz would do if word of this reached him…”
Talk of Urtz the Undying was more motivation than Erden could have possibly needed to keep a secret. “My lips are sealed,” he said raising his hands.
Bruno grinned and scratched the back of his head before turning to Luwain. “And you… Keep a low profile and be inconspicuous for a change.”
“Please be careful, all of you,” Luwain said looking down at her friend giving her a parting pat on the shoulder.
Bruno and Luwain said their goodbyes before a last handshake was exchanged between Erden and the dwarf. He handed the dairyman the end of Luwain’s rope lead and with a smile the short adventurer strode off down the hill. Erden and Luwain watched as the physician in green tartan gave a last flourish with his walking stick before he disappeared around the bend of the road. Now alone in an uncomfortable silence, the cow and the farmer turned to look at each another as a weak gust laden with the scent of lilies blew past them.
Copyright © 2015 Jason H. Abbott, All Rights Reserved.