Luwain approached the crest of the slope and her nose was assaulted by the smell of a compost pile alongside them. Erden disappeared as he rounded the path behind it, and the cow hurried her pace past the mound of manure and decomposing vegetation to catch-up to him. Turning the bend herself, the structures of the farm came into view as Luwain reached the long, flat hilltop.
Eager to put distance between herself and the stench, Luwain passed an empty inner corral of stout old wood as Erden sulked ahead of her. They crossed the path of a small brood of chickens that clucked and flapped out of the way of her hooves before she stopped a moment in the less tainted air. The chickens wandered into the old corral as they pecked and scratched, and with a few glances Luwain noted that it was far larger than the needs of the cattle she had seen so far. She then moved on, and saw a barn of wood, wattle and daub. The path brought her closer to it, and she could see the structure of the barn merge into the rounded walls of the farm’s main house.
Luwain squinted, then raised her head to take it all in. The bottom of Hilltop House was a wide circle of stone wall, ten paces in diameter and perhaps twice the height of a man before it gave way to the timber and thatch forming the roof. High above, a pair of magpies peered down at her from the thatching and let out a rattling screech.
“This isn’t a farm, it’s a fortress!” she exclaimed.
“It’s a ruin,” Erden said flatly. “An old tower knocked down long before Urtz became the Undying. Most of the stone had been hauled away before my family moved in generations ago.”
Luwain stood with her ears attentively forward and she took in the sight. “Well, it’s still impressive…”
“Hilltop House is too damned big, drafty and empty. But it’s got a cold cellar and a mighty deep well.”
Luwain followed the farmer to the thick wooden door of Hilltop House and watched him push it open with a creak. He left the door ajar as he placed her bags inside the stone dwelling, and a calico cat strutted her way out of the open doorway. As Luwain waited for Erden, the cat sat on the doorstep looking back at her with an unimpressed stare.
The wizardess lowered her horned head to see the feline better. “You’re a pretty one,” she cooed.
The cat hissed and swiped a paw at Luwain, who pulled back before her snout was clawed.
Erden returned a moment later and the cat sauntered away towards the barn before he closed the door. “Follow me out back and I’ll show you to your stall.”
“I’m sorry,” Luwain said following Erden.
“Oh, and what for?”
“I’m sorry that I yelled at you about the fair. And I’m sorry about your cow and dog.”
Erden nodded and kept walking, “That’s alright, Mame, I’m getting to be an old fool. Please forgive my lack of manners.”
“There is nothing to forgive, you’re a good man. Just like Bruno said you were.”
“He’s a good one, that physician, I’m sure he and the others will take care of this business with Moannette and the Stonebulls to get you back to normal.” The fencing of the pen behind the former tower came into view as the pair rounded the curve of Hilltop House.
“I pray you are right, she’s proved to be a ruthless opponent and I underestimated her.”
“But you fellas have Thorn, last heir to the Deathrose, chosen to slay—”
“—Thorn is a gardener,” Luwain interrupted, “and he’s barely nineteen. The boy is all heart, but he’s really just a kid.” She sighed as they took a few steps closer to the wooden gate of the fence. “I’ll grant that he turned a good trick in reclaiming the sword and all. And he’s inherited his mother’s magic with plants, but he’d never even touched a sword before he found the Deathrose.” Luwain shook her horns, “He’s training hard to become the paladin that everyone in Neep thinks he is. He has the ability to be that hero one day, I know it, but he isn’t that man today.”
Erden scratched his head. “Well, I still think it will work out. The Fellowship has Jhans… He’s as strong as an ox and knows his steel. And Kestrel can hit a bee at a hundred paces!”
They reached the gate and the dairyman lifted the rope loop holding it closed. “You’re exaggerating, but indeed they and Bruno are very competent. Yet they still needed me, and because of this… Now I’m nothing but an added burden to a farmer.”
Erden swung the gate open and the pair entered the confines of the empty enclosure that was perhaps ten yards square. “Is this going to be home?” Luwain asked looking about.
“More like where you will be spending your nights. I’ll leave the gate open during the day so you can come and go when you want.” Erden then pointed to a simple, roofed stall at the far end of the fence, alongside the stone wall of Hilltop House. “That should give you good shelter from the wind or rain, but if we get any really bad weather, I’m afraid you will have to hold up with the other ladies in the byre.”
Luwain nodded slowly. “Thank you, Erden. These are far better accommodations than I had dared hope for.”
The farmer tipped his straw hat, “Well, you’re welcome to them. I’ll need to bring you some fresh water for the trough, but you’re lucky because I put clean hay for bedding in there only yesterday. Xune was in here for a time while I tended his wound, and he had made a terrible mess in there…”
“Oh, poor thing. Will he recover, Erden?”
“Given how he’s trying to curry your favor, he’ll be fine,” Erden winked. The farmer then took a deep breath and patted his hips before letting out a slow whistle and glancing towards the barn. “Alright, let me fetch my stool and pail and I’ll take care of your other problem.”
“I think a stand of some sort would make a better platform for my books,” Luwain said, still squinting and looking around the enclosure. “Maybe some old fencing or something?”
Erden folded his arms. “No Mame, your other, other problem.”
Luwain slowly turned her head and narrowed her eyes on the freeman. “What did Blackettle tell you?” she growled.
“Nothing. He didn’t have to. I suspected it when I saw your gait coming up the hill, and knew for sure as soon as I saw you up close. I am a dairyman, you know.” Erden unfolded his arms and then walked calmly to Luwain’s side. “The only thing that confuses me is why you’re in such a state… You haven’t mentioned a baby and I wouldn’t think that you’re a wet nurse.”
Luwain rolled her eyes, “It’s the magic… Another ‘blessing’. Sacred Vessel of the Divine Milk of Hught isn’t a title that I ever wanted to bear…”
“Ah, now I get it,” he nodded. “Well, I’d better only display a mastery of my profession to an emissary of the Goddess.”
“Very droll, Marn Erden, but if you try to put your hands anywhere near my nether regions, I swear I’ll kick you so hard you’ll land in Adril!”
“Oh come now, I can see you’re uncomfortable, and if we don’t take care of it you’ll get worse and inflamed. Then rot could set in and—”
“—Alright! Enough! I don’t want to know!”
Erden kneeled down to eye-level with her. “Let’s not fight about it… Look, I’ve been milking cows since I was a boy. I’m sure it’s as awkward as hell for you, but it ain’t nothing but a chore to me.”
Luwain flicked her ears nervously, “It hurt when Kestrel tried to help yesterday! I’m still sore!”
“Kestrel is a sweet girl to try, but she’s a ranger, not a milkmaid. As for me, well, this is my livelihood! And I promise you it won’t hurt a bit… My ladies never complain, anyway.”
“This isn’t open to negotiation, is it?”
“Nope,” Erden said rising back to his feet and brushing loose grass off his knees.
“Fine, do what you need to do… I’ll just wait here and say farewell to whatever dignity I have left until you return.”
Erden shook his head and turned to leave. “It won’t be so bad, Mame. You have my word.”
“Wait, you… You don’t have cold hands, do you?”
The dairyman stopped and looked back at Luwain, silencing his laughter behind a dry smile.
“Don’t make fun!”
Still grinning, Erden slapped his palms together and rubbed them vigorously before finally sticking both hands under his armpits.
“They’re sensitive, you clod!” she said digging the grass with a hoof. “Just as sensitive as the pair I had before my transmogrification!”
“Oh, I wish that you hadn’t said that… Now I can’t look at my chores the same way ever again.”
“Ah, but now you know why your ladies are always so happy to see you!”
Erden’s face became unsettled as he turned from Luwain and walked away, hands still tucked in his armpits.
The bovine wizardess kept her eyes on the freeman as he exited the corral, “It’s going to be even more awkward now, isn’t it?”
“Ahyuh,” came the dairyman’s reply as he turned around inside the open gate. He looked back to find Luwain sad-eyed.
“I’m sorry, I should be a bitch and not a cow.”
Erden’s dry smile returned. “Oh, I think you are a fine lady in whatever form you might happen to be in. You’re just grappling with a lot and ain’t got any hands to do it with.”
The two regarded each other for a moment as Erden rubbed his unkempt goatee in contemplation, then Luwain watched his eyes flash with inspiration. “You know what? I think I might have an idea to resolve this conundrum.”
The dun colored cow shook her head as the farmer took an inspired step towards the barn. “Alright, I’ll just be here, waiting.”
“It won’t be a long wait!” he said disappearing past the fencing.
“Waiting like a two-penny trollop for her daily fondling…” she sighed under her breath.
“Twice daily!” Erden shouted back in the distance, causing Luwain to perk her ears.
With her host no longer in sight, Luwain looked about the open pen. She walked from one side to another still sad-eyed, prodding the fenced boundaries of her lodging with snout and horn. Wandering to the wooden stall she peered inside to find it dry and well strewn with hay.
There was an audible growl from her stomach and she backed out of the stall’s opening. With a look of near shame she licked her lips and scanned the ground before wincing at a second, louder growl from within her. Spotting a clump of tall grass, she dipped her head and quickly chopped on the verdant blades. She brought her head up frowning in disgust as she chewed, then swallowed with visible effort. Luwain eyed the remaining grass before her with discontent, but her ears lifted forward when she spied a patch of clover and daisies near a fencepost.
She made her way to the edge of the corral and raised her head high, looking for Erden. With no signs of him approaching, she leaned in and took a mouthful of the trefoil. She brought her head to the level of the fence’s top rail and chewed with the intensity of a connoisseur. Swallowing the vegetation with a blink of surprise, she licked her lips. Giving a guilty look to either side, she dipped down to devour the remaining clover with a smile.
Erden coughed. “So, is it an acquired taste after all?”
Luwain’s eyes shot wide as she gulped down the last mouthful of vegetation. Muttering an unintelligible word, the cow backed up and swung her body around to face the farmer standing in the open gate. “It’s… acceptable!”
Erden walked into the pen leading a small reddish-brown calf behind him on a rope.
“What’s this?” Luwain asked.
“This is a calf,” The dairyman replied using his foot to close the gate. He set down the leather pail and the wooden stool bundled under his right arm, then gave the wobbly animal at his side a scratch behind the ear. “She’s another one of my problems, like certain other folks I know.”
Luwain squinted at the animal while Erden removed the rope halter from the calf. “She looks fine to me, how is she a problem?”
“She’s an orphan. The Saberwolf killed her ma the other day, and the babe is too young to be weaned.” Erden released the youngling and she took a few cautious steps away from him.
The wizardess slowly shook her horns. “That’s very sad, but if you are going to ask me what I think you are, I—” Luwain cut herself short as the calf made her way towards her with a gentle curiosity. A moment later the youngling was huddled next to her, warm and small.
“Oh, she’s very sweet…” Luwain cooed looking at the calf pressing against her.
“I’ve been trying to pair her off with one of the other dams, but they won’t take her.” The rustic freeman took off his hat and held it in his hands. “Look, if you think it’s a bad idea, then I’ll take her back to the byre and that will be the end of it. She won’t be anybody’s problem in a day or two.”
Luwain leveled a distressed gaze at the farmer, “Damn it, why are you doing this?”
“It’s a terrible thing to be powerless when you know you’re needed. Or worse, to be unneeded and powerless.”
The youngling rubbed its cheek against Luwain and she looked back down at her. “I could command the elements and was called a hero the day before yesterday. Now look at me; stripped of everything. A worthless cow who can’t decide if it’s worse to be milked by a farmhand, or play mother to a calf.”
“I reckon the fate of a runty calf won’t surmount the deeds you’ve already done. Or those that your friends are undertaking in your absence,” Erden said before the calf gave a bleating cry that drew his eye. “But to her, you will be the greatest hero that she will ever know.”
Luwain looked up at Erden for a moment with her ears perked forward, and he watched her hard stare soften around her brown eyes. She then lowered her head until her snout rested on the head of the calf. Luwain took a deep sniff as she closed her eyes. “She smells… Like an animal… But a cuddly one. What’s her name?”
“She ain’t got one yet,” Erden shrugged.
“I’ll call her Daisy then… Simple and pretty.” She lifted her head and gave a confident nod. “I think that I will choose this arrangement over the other. Thank you, Erden.”
The farmer put his hat back on with a nod, “You’re welcome. I’ll collect my things over here and leave you two to get acquainted.”
Luwain’s confident look gave way to one of concern as she watched Erden lift his pail from the ground and stuff the wooden stool under his arm. “Wait… I haven’t a clue what to do here! You’re the dairyman!”
Erden stood up straight with a smile. “Oh, it’s easy, Mame! Just don’t kick her! She’s hungry and she’ll know what to do. You’ll both be feeling better in no time at all.”
The calf beside her gave a playful jump, “I suppose that I’m overthinking it…”
“Ahyuh,” the farmer affirmed as he pulled the gate closed. “I’m going to pen you in for the calf’s sake. I’ll be back with some water in a bit.”
“I would actually like some privacy while I, sort this situation out. May we have some time?”
“Fair enough. I’ll go hunt out some nails to build you a… bookstand… in the stall. That’ll be a chore,” Erden groaned walking past the rails of the fence.
The dun colored cow could see the dry smile on his lips. “You are the finest of hosts!”
Erden waved away her praise and continued to walk.
“Oh, and one last thing…”
The dairyman stopped in his tracks and rolled his eyes. “Yes, Mame?”
Luwain smiled and flicked her ears. “…I’ll consider your proposition about the Solstice Fair.”
Copyright © 2015 Jason H. Abbott, All Rights Reserved.