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.
Erden gave a stolid nod to Luwain before he took hold of the rope halter on her head. He loosened its bindings and lifted it past her horns, “We won’t need to keep up any appearances here unless other folks are around.”
“Thank you, I hate being led around like, well… Like a cow. It was Bruno’s idea to make me less, conspicuous, on the way over.”
“It’s no bother,” Erden nodded as Luwain shook her head free of the halter. He coiled the rope of the lead and harness before hanging it on the fencepost beside them. Erden then moved to Luwain’s side and grabbed the leather strap across her back that balanced the paired saddlebags.
“Oh, you are a gentleman! I’d give you a tip, but I don’t have my purse at hand,” she said as the farmer gripped the bags.
“Thank you, Mame,” Erden grunted as he lifted the bags and draped them over his shoulder. “What do you have in these things? Bricks?”
“No, books. I’ll need them to research a counter-spell for my affliction. Should my magic fail to resurface, I’ll share my findings with whomever is brought in to reverse the transmogrification.”
Erden raised an eyebrow, “What are you going to do? Turn the pages with your tongue?”
“I… haven’t worked that out yet… Perhaps you could assist?” Luwain batted the lashes of her brown eyes at the farmer before he rolled his.
“Come on,” Erden groaned as he turned to walk up the hill. “Follow me and I’ll show you around before I get you situated.”
Luwain followed him hesitantly at first, then edged up alongside Erden. “Thank you again for not leading me around with a rope.”
“Ahyuh,” he nodded.
“Is there anyone else that you need to introduce me to around here?”
“Not anyone on two legs,” the dairyman said approaching a second line of fencing. “It’s just me and the animals since my daughter got married last year. I get the occasional visitor, but it’s usually quiet.” Stopping at a wooden gate, he grabbed the fixed loop of old rope that held it closed.
Luwain looked up the gentle slope beyond the fence, “You must have an impressive view up there.”
Erden removed a wooden peg that held the loop in place. “I suppose. On a day like today you can see past the south woods into Neep, and if you look hard you might see the ruins of the Grey Keep past the heather mire to the north.”
Luwain squinted as she raised and lowered her neck. “I’m sure it’s pretty, but I’ll need to take your word for it. Since my transformation, it’s hard to focus on details. It’s very strange; I can see all around, but everything is in a reddish hue and it’s hard to tell a hole from a shadow. Perhaps I can spend some time and wander to take it all in later?”
Erden nodded as the rope came loose, “After I show you what to avoid, you’ll be free to roam.” He took a hold of the gate and walked forward to swing it inwards. The freeman then leaned on the top rail of the wooden gate and watched the heifer enter. “Forgive me, but what you said about your sight has gotten me nosey. I’ve got questions.”
Luwain cleared the gate and watched Erden start to close it, “I’d like to think that they will be questions about how I had a key role in repelling the host of Urtz, or even how I didn’t intend to burn that damned bridge down… But they’re going to be cow-related, aren’t they?”
“Ahyuh,” the farmer nodded hooking the loop back on the gate. “I’ve been talking to cows for most of my life, but you’re the only one that has spoken back.”
Luwain sighed. “Alright, ask away.”
Erden finished securing the gate and then motioned Luwain to follow as he walked past her. “What’s it like? You know, being a cow and all?”
“What’s it like?” Luwain echoed with perked ears. “Well… To start, I’m huge… I’ve gone from ten stone to over a hundred, I’m sure. Between that and clomping around on all fours I’ve been terribly clumsy. But I’m not as bad today as I was yesterday when I almost broke poor Thorn’s foot.”
Erden snorted at the thought of scrawny Thorn Rosklin, fated adversary of Urtz, being stomped by a cow. “You stepped on the wielder of the Deathrose Blade?”
“I’ve stepped on a lot of things so far, so consider yourself warned!” The wiry man nodded before Luwain spoke again. “To continue with your first question, however, the weirdest thing about it for me is that I’m naked. Yet nobody seems to think anything of it except for me…”
Erden looked back at Luwain and squinted. “You know, it probably won’t make you feel any better, but I hadn’t even given that a moment’s thought until you mentioned it.”
Luwain gave a swat of her tail as they continued to walk up the hillside path. “My womanly endowments are now doubled, enormous and swaying just above the ground for all the world to see. Do you have any idea how awkward that is?”
Erden’s eyes darted to the swaying motion of Luwain’s udder before he turned away. “I… can imagine.” The pair walked in silence for several moments before the farmer found his voice again and nodded, “It’s nothing that I don’t see every day though, Mame, so don’t feel embarrassed on my account. But if you really want, I could see what I could stitch together from some sackcloth and—”
“—No. I’ll just… keep getting used to it,” Luwain sighed. “Bruno is right that I should stay inconspicuous, but maybe if I get cold, you could lend me a blanket?”
“Of course. I’ve got an old horse blanket that’ll do the trick.”
They approached the fence of the outer corral and five Olst Reds lifted their heads from their grazing. The milch cows mooed a greeting as Erden stopped and waved them over. “Greetings ladies, I’ve brought a new friend.”
“You’re not going to put me in there, are you?” Luwain cringed eyeing the animals.
“Not today, they need to get used to you first or you’ll upset them.” The cattle bellowed to their spring calves and together they plodded towards the edge of the fence as Erden extended a hand to them under a wooden rail. “I’ve got a modest pen and covered stall that I use as a spare when one of ladies is sick or hurt. You can have that space all to yourself.”
“That sounds, lovely,” Luwain said as Erden rubbed the snout of the first cow to reach him.
Erden brushed the ear of the russet colored milch cow as she leaned into his palm and mooed. “Well, lovely would be a bit generous…but it’s clean and dry. The usual tenants don’t complain, anyways.” He looked back at Luwain, “You’ll have to get used to the other ladies soon though, because all of you will be sharing the pasture.”
“I didn’t expect to be boarded in a house,” Luwain said eyeing the reddish brown cattle gathering before her, “but do you have to put me in with your animals? I’m… I’m not like them.”
“You won’t be overnighting with them, but you’ll need to graze and to do that you’ll have to share the pasture.” Erden turned his attention back to the herd and ruffled the head of a curious calf.
Luwain continued to look at the cows, then shook her horns. “I’d rather not. Couldn’t I eat somewhere else without being fenced in with common cattle?”
Erden turned around and faced Luwain as he hooked his thumbs over his belt. “Look, I get it. You’ve still got your mind, and your tongue, but you and I both know that you ain’t got the body of a woman at the moment.”
The farmer watched Luwain look away and then back again before she reluctantly nodded. “Yes, obviously… But I’m still me. I don’t want to be locked away all day with no one to talk to.”
Erden shook his head, and gestured to the russet colored cattle behind him. “Oh, I won’t make it like that. It’s just that like the other ladies, you’re going to spend a lot of time grazing and cudding, or you’ll starve. Behind the pasture fence is the only safe place for you to do that, with rustlers and wolves and whatnot about.”
Luwain lifted her dun colored head and flicked her ears, “I hadn’t really thought about it that way…”
The dairyman turned back to his cattle behind the wooden rails. “Once the ladies are used to you, you’ll see how the herd takes care of their own. You’ll be far safer with them than by yourself… How about we make a deal, Luwain? If you can play nice and eat your greens with the herd, I’ll let you out after grazing when I can. Then you can talk my ear off about this and the other as much as you want.”
“Deal,” Luwain said with a firm nod as she watched Erden reach for another cow mooing for his attention. “I will hold you to that!”
Erden nodded as he felt his palm nuzzled and licked by the next cow pressing in to greet him. “You’re a guest, not a captive, Mame. Besides, I’ve missed a woman’s voice around here since Meleen wed and had the baby.”
“Thank you, I’ll try my best with… Eating.” Luwain summoned a small smile to her lips and displayed one of the few signs that she was more than an ordinary heifer.
“Have you tasted any clover yet? There’s a lot of it around here and the ladies sure seem to like it.”
“If it’s anything like the mouthfuls of grass I’ve choked down, I’m sure that I’ll hate it,” she said from behind the farmer.
“Let’s hope it’s an acquired taste then.” Erden made sure that he gave each remaining member of the small herd lounging over the rail of the fence a friendly head rub, then turned to leave.
“Gods, I’m huge even compared to other cows,” Luwain sighed before he could start back up the path again.
Erden waved her to follow, “Oh, you’re just a bigger breed… A prize example too, if you ask me.”
“Well, I’m flattered.”
“You should be,” the farmer said as the pair walked away from the cows watching from behind the wooden rails. “I don’t say it often.” The dirt path curved gently as they walked it, hugging the edge of the fence as it continued up the slow rise of the large hill.
Luwain squinted at the blurry approach of a small paddock ahead, fenced off from the main pasture. “Is that the pen you have set aside for me?” she asked the dairyman straining her brown eyes to make out any more detail of the structure.
Erden was slow to respond as they continued to walk, “Oh, that… No, you definitely won’t be going in there.”
Luwain turned her head and focused her red-tinted vision on Erden beside her, catching the farmer rubbing his unkempt goatee in thoughtful silence. “Alright, what’s crossed your mind? Another cow-related question?”
“No,” he said still scratching his chin. “I was actually thinking about the Solstice Fair. It’s coming up in a month you know…”
“And what of it?” the bovine wizardess asked as she plodded up the path with her tail gently swaying.
A grin grew on Erden’s lips. “Well, it’s been a hard few years and all… And a big win at the fair could really turn things around—”
“—You’re joking!” Luwain snapped back at him, her flank bumping the fencing beside her. “You want to display me in all my bloated glory for the whole county to see?! I’d never—”
“—But you’re a beauty! Neither Gwillis or Cleia and her sons ain’t got a cow half as fine as you. All you would need to do is keep your mouth shut and walk around—”
“—I can’t believe that we’re having this conversation! No!” she protested as her tail thrashed like a whip.
“Awe, come on, Luwain… Wouldn’t you like being complimented and the center of attention all day?”
“Not as a cow!”
“You’d walk away the winner of the brass bell, queen of the fair!”
“No, no, no-oooooooo!” her reply bellowed out like a long moo, the first cow-like sound Erden had heard her make. They both stopped in their tracks as Luwain blinked her eyes in shock at the bovine noise she had just uttered.
She shook-off her surprise with a snort, then thrust her muzzle snout-to-nose with Erden. “I’m frightened enough of losing my mind to this ‘blessing’ from the Goddess as it is!” she shouted. “Am I really so pathetic now that while my friends are facing death, I’m going to prance around and play the pretty heifer?!”
Erden raised his hands in surrender as Luwain took a few steps backwards, huffing. She clumsily pressed against the fencepost behind her and doing so the old wood and rails groaned from her weight. Luwain stopped short of doing any harm, looking back at the rails and then herself before she closed her eyes and slumped her horned head in dejection. A moment later Erden heard a sob.
Luwain was surprised when she felt Erden’s hand brush the furred ridge of her neck. “I’m an idiot,” he said as her ears perked. “I won’t mention it again.”
She raised her dun colored head and opened her eyes. With a nod she started to speak, but stopped cold with a gaping mouth. Her eyes shot wide as something wet poked itself past her tail and nudged her posterior.
The dairyman lost his hat as Luwain bolted past him with a shrill cry, nearly knocking him over. Erden regained his footing as the hundred stone cow huddled behind him. “Woah! Easy now boy!” he shouted to the reddish-brown bull snorting and licking his nose over the top fence rail.
Luwain stood with her forelegs splayed and short horns lowered as Erden approached the bull, “By the Seven Gods! He didn’t just put his—”
“—It was his nose,” Erden interjected moving to scratch the bull’s chin. “Old Xune here is a rascal, but a gentleman with the ladies.” The farmer continued to pat the bull as the animal stared at Luwain, chewing and licking. Erden looked to her and chuckled dryly and grinned as the chestnut bull raised his head high to see over him. “I can tell that you’ll need to be watchful around him, however, he’s got eyes for you!”
Luwain let out a groan of disgust and shivered as the bull preened his long horns and head to gain her favor before Erden shooed him away. As she watched the animal leave, she noticed a limp and a long gash running down his flank. The injury had been cleaned and cauterized shut with a heated brand.
“What happened to him?” Luwain asked turning to Erden.
“Saberwolf. A few days ago the bastard broke in under full daylight and killed one of my ladies. I got there just as the dog intervened, and Fleet was all snarl and bark as he and the wolf locked jaws… But it was old Xune that did that son-of-a-bitch in with a kick after he bit him.”
“And your dog?”
“I buried him right over there.” Erden pointed to a spot overlooking a beautiful view of the heather mire far beyond them. He said nothing more as he retrieved his fallen hat, re-shouldered the saddle bags and walked off towards the thatched roofs of the farm buildings. Luwain looked back at the bull, and then at the other cows father away, before she clomped after the farmer.
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.