Return and Remorse


Boletus Pungentus Foetidus

In the year 1,000, Fall was a thing of terror. Hail and rain lashed the bare trees, soaked what passed for Clwyd-Rhan's roads, chilling anyone foolhardy enough to brave the dangers of the forest, which were compounded at this time of year by falling branches. It would have been picturesque if there had been anyone out to take pictures. Toadstools popped up across the forest, punctuating the brown and yellow of the decaying forest with their livid colors.

Around one tree, a circle formed of Boletus Pungentus Foetidus, whose fragrance would soon stifle the dank, chilly air. In some traditions, circles of toadstools are thought to be caused by the unspeakable nocturnal activities of evil witches, and while this is a gross slander on the witching professsion, it is not entirely baseless. A miasma of evil surrounds these mushrooms wherever they raise their pungent little caps, and as a matter of fact, witches avoid them entirely for that reason, arguing that unspeakable nocturnal activities are best carried out with a clean pair of lungs, dry eyes and unblocked sinuses.

Eventually, the air cleared for long enough to allow a small cart to negotiate the sodden forest tracks.



Back in the house...

Kel was very eager not to let her confinement go on for too long. A few days after the birth of baby Fay, Leppiäinnen the bath house emperor brought her and Jodoque home.

Great was the rejoicing from Atra the witch and Jake the Gnome, who had held the fort in the past few weeks. Greater still was the adulation when the baby, snugly swaddled in sheets, was flourished before the older members of the household. Atra in particular made the cross-beams shake with an impressive range of Oohs and Aahs.

It did not take long, however, before the witch and the gnome realised that a second baby, and a big question, had yet to be popped.



Catching up on the events of the past few days.

That same evening. Atra asked about Tamlin and Ragnarok. Wasn't their baby born yet? Where were they?

With great reluctance, Jodoque told of the events in the bath house the day Fay was born, ending with Ragna's sudden departure for the ducal winter castle. Neither Kel nor Jodoque were quite clear on the details but they had figured out that the middle-aged woman Tamlin had spent a lot of time talking to had been an old flame of his, and that Ragnarok didn't like their meeting again a bit.

After Ragna had left, Tamlin and that woman, Ethelfried, had spent the rest of the day arguing, until Ethelfried retired to her farmstead, and Tamlin to his lodging, and to a gloom that even his ale could not brighten.



Yes yes yes, it's all doom and gloom from the tomb.

Gloom was also what filled the air in the home once the sordid tale was finished. The mood failed to be brightened by Kel's casual mention of her adventure with the crow people a few weeks before the birth.

Although Atra had helped Kel find the cure for the dread disease that affected her at the time, they had not yet had the opportunity to work out what exactly had happened.

Kel went through that long story too, while Atra sipped her ale thoughtfully.
"So then the ancestral gander appeared in the circle..." Kel was about to end the tale when she spotted a movement in the cabin's one small window.




The artful throwing of projectiles - Atra has it

The old witch was quick to react. Jumping out of her chair, she waved frantically at the bird perched in the window.

"Shoo! Out! Out!"

The bird fluttered off to a branch from which it jeered at the house. An artfully thrown projectile persuaded it to take its defiant chattering elsewhere.

"Cheeky little bastards," said Atra. "But I think this was a normal one."



Tamlin's personal pit of despair

That night, like the seven nights before, Tamlin sat sulking in his room in the Leppiännen complex, until he went to bed, where he tossed and turned and sulked some more. However, unlike the seven nights before, he was coming to some sort of a decision.

"Need to fix things up with Ragna," he said to himself, "if only for our child. But then... Ethelfried... why did I ever leave her? All those years ago?"

As the night wore on, worry, guilt, blame and self-loathing fought for space in his head.

"Why did Ragna feed me drunk until-"

"Why did I let her?

"Why am I such a waste of space - a drunk and a rotter?"

...And so on, until he fell asleep.

In the morning, Tamlin finally made up his mind, and took his leave.



Morning at the homestead...

Although baby Fay had contrived to murder the sleep of all the farm's adults more than once that night, she greeted the new day with great urgency and volume.

A hearty breakfast and a few kind words - or rather, a few deadly insults lilted at her in a soothing tone as if they were kind words, - helped calm down the infant's temper. That being done, Kel took to the stable to make her own breakfast arrangements with two goats that Atra had bought earlier that year.

"Rrrrright," she told them. "Now it's my turn".



They're goats. They're not going to be all that cooperative.

"You girls could have been a little more generous," said Kel. The goats gave her a knowing look, as if to say "Well, you know what to do."

Still, there was enough milk for the breakfast table, and with some bread, meat, light ale and cheese, the day was off to a good start, with Fay contributing silence.

The following days were packed. The four remaining inhabitants quickly settled into a routine of washing, feeding, cleaning, milking, churning, cheesemaking, swaddling, unswaddling and all the other things that went into running a household with a small child. Jodoque went back to his job with the Town Crier Network, and as soon as he had some time, tried out some new ideas for his fire-breathing dragon. Atra and Kel found the time to prepare some more portable crystal balls.

In short, things soon seemed almost perfectly normal.



He arrives. He watches. He knocks.

A week after he left Leppiäinnen, Tamlin finally reached his first stop - a largish farm complex near the fortified city of Dungill Fens. He lingered a while before the main building's door, bracing himself.

"Here goes nothing," he said to himself

and

knocked.



Surprisingly, the knock was answered, not by the lady of the house, but by an elderly footman.

"How can I help you, Sir?" said the footman.

"I want to see Ethelfried," Tamlin replied.

"What, if I may be so bold, Sir, is Sir's name?" enquired the footman.

"Tamlin. Th'lady knows me."

"Permit me to report to the Mistress."

The footman withdrew, leaving Tamlin waiting in the rain.



"Sure you are permitted to," thought Tamlin as he waited for the door to open again.

Meanwhile, the footman had, at his leisure, tracked down Ethelfried who had secreted herself in the main hall of the farmstead, where she was entertaining a guest. The news that a man called Tamlin was at their door was merely an unpleasant surprise to the lady of the house, but it was a major source of consternation to the young man sitting opposite her.

"Don't worry, my child," whispered Ethelfried." I'll talk to him. You take your time... when you're ready, leave through the window."



Call the midwife! Oh, wait, she's already here.

Not far from where Ethelfried spoke those words, a baby was being born. Or at least, it was trying to be born. Unlike Kel's labours less than two weeks before, Ragnarok's were proving to be a long, drawn-out ordeal, just as Mrs. Leppiäinnen had warned.

Now, at last, the pangs were becoming more frequent, even as Ragna's cries and her breathing were becoming fainter. Guðrún, the Icelandic-born witch, second cousin of the Witch Queen and Duchess of Dungill Fens, was rarely worried about anything - she had survived the wrath of her royal relative, political intrigue at the Clwydian court, a rival's attempt to saw her head open and remove her brain and Tamlin's gang's bumbling efforts to rescue her (which had resulted in the destruction of an ancient castle on Iceland which she had hoped to inherit, or else steal, one day). Through all these troubles, she had at been able to keep worry as far from her mind as was necessary to get on with the job of coming out on top.

Now, however, she was muttering to herself in Icelandic even though she was sure no one was eavesdropping. This was not her kind of job. There was nothing to it. She was going have to call on another, more experienced witch for help.

Just before she passed out again, Ragna briefly wondered how many other women had a duchess for a midwife...



AND...

Return of the popping pongwhiffs... and an unwanted face from the past.

...in the forest, the cold, wet weather had brought the Boletus Pungentus Foetidus toadstools, commonly known as Popping Pongwhiffs or Gnome's Garters, to full ripeness. One at a time, the toadstools' hoods swelled, then popped, releasing their rich and very organic fragrance into the air.

When all the toadstools had shed their noxious, spore-carrying loads, an irate voice rang from the inside of the tree known to forest-dwellers as the Dread Pine - or was it really the inside of the tree? The voice echoed as if from some nether dimension; from the sort of infernal, monster-infested space seen by the most inspired religious painters or anyone daft enough to eat a mouthful of Popping Pongwhiffs.

"Fie!", the voice intoned as a slim, tall figure appeared from the cleft in the tree. "How oft must I forewarn these rogues to quit their pongsome doings?"



Stools of toad. I shall withdraw to my tree fortwith.

The fay Wythllew, for indeed it was she, looked around , befuddled. Gradually, it dawned on her that the fetid stench surrounding her abode was not in fact caused by the actions of rogue, gnome or witch.

"Stools of Toad!", she concluded. "Goodfullike, I shall withdraw to my tree forthwith. Let it not be said that Wythllew is wrathful against dumb-"
She was interrupted by a chattering sound that sounded like a laugh. Angrily, Wythllew looked up.
"What wight of waggishness whinnies at Wythllew?", she alliterated, seeking out the source of the laughter. From a nearby tree, a rook gave her an intense stare.



Before the faerie's blinking eyes, the bird turned into a tall man with a long, shaggy beard.

The fay Wythllew could recognise a magical creature when she saw one, but she wasn't too sure of the precise nature of this one. "Who art thou?", she inquired. "Didst thou plant these here stools of - "
"Wait!", croaked the rook. Before the faerie's blinking eyes, the bird turned into a tall man with a long, shaggy beard.
"Leroukh Corby, at your service! Did I hear you say something about a gang of rogues?"
"Mayhap, thou wouldst rather come down from that branch", said Wythllew. Something in the man's tone of voice told her that there was no love lost between him and the unwashed brigands who had annoyed her intermittently over the past nine years. Something in her own tone of voice, she was well aware, was making it carry less weight, less authority, than it normally would have.

"You come up," teased the man.




Giddily, Wythllew pardoned him.

"Aw, I wuz jus' foxin' ya!," said the birdman. "I know yer technic'lly trapped in that circle. Wait!"

Leroukh, the most able shapeshifter of the Corby clan, quickly reassumed his bird shape, flew down into the circle and became a man again.

"Cryoouu mrust - ahem - you must excuse me. I spend most of my time in rook form. I lose my manners."

Giddily, Wythllew pardoned him. From up close, the enchanted man with his shaggy mane and beard looked, and smelled, even more dangerous than before.

"I'Faith," she lilted, and was again surprised by the way her voice rose in pitch. "What wouldst thou know concerning these dastardful knaves?"



Five minutes of waiting had turned Tamlin into a gibbering nervous wreck! Seeing the chilly expression on Ethelfried's face when the door finally opened again didn't help him much either.

Said the lady of the house: "What. Do. You. Want."

Said Tamlin: "Your ear. For five minutes, no more."

"In," said Ethelfried, and if any part of her was warming up, it didn't show on the outside.

Shortly, they sat at a small table in the farmstead's main hall. The servant briefly appeared to bring ale for Tamlin and wine for his host, and then vanished discreetly.

"Five minutes," said Ethelfried.

Tamlin took a deep breath.



Tamlin's old reputation comes up again.

"I am indeed the father of Ragna's child. I'm responsible for him... her... it. And I want to raise it if Ragna wants me to. That is why I agreed to Ragna's suggestion that we set up a farm."

Tamlin's admissions did little to improve Ethelfried's mood.

"But - ", Tamlin continued, "we weren't lovers, and still aren't."

This, at least, caught Ethelfried's attention.

"Ragna joined the gang when she was just a girl. She knew me by reputation - that of a dashing bandit who slayed dragons, stole from the rich, and gave to the poor, yadda yadda, and had a big crush on me."

"Tamlin," said Ethelfried, "You don't have time for the saga of your life. Get to the point."



That sure looks chilly. What does Ethelfried have to hide?

Tamlin quickly decided that there wasn't time to react to interruptions either.
"She spent many years trying to get me into her bed, but I wasn't interested. Until..."

Ethelfried listened with great interest, as did Ethelfried's guest, who was posted outside her window, taking in every word. The young man had lost the hooded robe which he had worn inside the house, which was unfortunate in the chilly weather. It did not seem to bother him much.

".. late last winter, we both had too much to drink one day, and she succeeded. Stupid! Stupid!
"It was wrong of me to let that happen, and it was wrong of me to leave you all those years ago."

Ethelfried pondered this.

"But you did, and you did," she retorted, with cold menace in her voice.



The meeting ends on a bit of a downer.

"I know," said Tamlin, who did not want to drag the conversation on for much longer. "I've made a choice. Like I said, if Ragna will let me, I'll stay on the farm and raise our child."
He rose out of his chair.

"Why did you come?" asked Ethelfried. She had expected pleas, excuses, argument, anything but this fatalistic admission of blame.

"I just wanted you to know, that's all."
And with that, he turned around and left.

Ethelfried did not try to follow him. She stayed in her seat, staring at the fire. Then, she noticed Tamlin's tankard, which was still nearly full.



Behind Ethelfried, a bird swooped in through the window, diving towards a screen along the wall.

Behind Ethelfried, a bird swooped in through the window, diving towards a screen along the wall. It disappeared behind the screen, and a few seconds later, Ethelfried's previous guest emerged, lacing up a grey, hooded robe.

"That", said the young man, "was just... crazy. Surely you don't believe a word of that? 'I just wanted you to know... that's all!' Pathetic!"



Paranoid, much?

Slowly, Ethelfried answered.
"I have no idea. I have no idea if any of that was true, or why he wanted me to know."

"Probably expected you to bounce right into his arms," said Hoodie Corby. "But at least we know that Leroukh was right. Tamlin and his gang are divided and preoccupied with their domestic affairs. That means that the red-headed witch is vulnerable."

"Look, " said Ethelfried. "I saw her on the day she gave birth, and talked to her husband. They both seemed to be perfectly nice people. Why do you have it in for her? She hasn't done you any harm..."

"She's a threat to us - like all witches. That fat old hag is bad enough - but she's old now, and I don't think she understood, you know... " A bit of the fire drained from his voice. There were some things you just didn't talk about. "...Beltane's Eve."

"But that redhead, she's got a brain. She notices things. We need her out of our lives."



Send him away, says Gu∂rún.

A discreet cough from one of the castle's many footmen interrupted Guðrún's ministrations.

"A Mr. Tamlin Lanfathingum is at the portal nearby, if I may be so bold. With your permission, I could-", said the footman.
"Send him away," said Guðrún. "Neither of us are in any condition to talk to him, even if we wanted to."

The room, which had been converted into a sickroom for the birth had been converted again, in considerable haste, to a magical workroom. A quickly-drawn circle surrounded the table on which Ragnarok lay unconscious, her body barely responding the pangs of labour. Vats of incense were placed around the edge, but the circle had been broken many times over by grimoires strewn randomly around it. Rows of crystal balls monitored the goings-on from a nearby table.

Guðrún sighed, and turned back to her patient.



The conversation between Leroukh and Wythllew naturally turns towards the red-headed witch.

"What do you know about the red-headed witch," asked Leroukh Corby. He stared into the wine the fay had just poured him, unsure whether his body could handle it. Realising that in his bird form, he had often consumed decomposing carcases, he decided to chance it. "I understand that you haven't been out of this tree in years, but what was she like, the last time you saw her?"

"Witch?", said Wythllew. "Think not of her as a witch. She is witch second, mongrel foremost! Forsooth a fearless fighter, fierce on the field, but weak in witchery."
"So... what were her skills?"
"Nary a groat's worth! Had she not had hag-help, she would have been failful. That crone-hag Atra what for to do told her."

Like many people, Leroukh sometimes had to rearrange Wythllew's sentences in his head. When he got it, he couldn't help emulating her style. "What to do told she her?"

"Snare me with ruse!"



Scarabus the Dirt-Swine.

"My vassal, Scarabus the dirt-swine, was gulled to give unto me an iron five-edge, safe-vouching that it would strain my magery. Failed this, I took the chain, hoping to strain the mongrel's shapeshiftery with it instead. Everhow, once the chain was on her neck, she was iron-clad against my magery."

"Smart," opined Leroukh, as soon as he had translated Wythllew's story into Clwydian. Through the fog the wine had created in his brain, a thought nagged at him.

"Aye," said the fay. But 'twas the old hag's smarthood, not the mongrel's. She merefully took the chain and-

The thought that had pestered Leroukh assumed a more distinct form. "Shapeshifter?"

"'Tis a sooth! She can on-take the form of wild growth, or, hehheh, a fay of mickle might can force her to."



"Maybe that is how she fled our house! By turning into a creeper and dropping out the window?"

"Left she her clothings ahind?" asked Wythllew. "She would have had to quit unclad, like your good self."
"No... she must have worn her clothes."
"How unuselike. But that unrules shiftshape. Nary a shifter can shift inside clothings. Unless..."
"I know that some shapeshifters can do it. Either way, she must have made real progress as a witch since you last confronted her. BUT! Right now, she's vulnerable."



Oh, them.

The faerie Wythllew perked up her ears, which took her a while. "For-tell!"

"She has a new-born baby to look after- "
"A quart-elf! More mongrels defiling the earth! "
"--and she has to do without the protection of her gang's ringleaders."
"Who be they?"
"You know.... the fat old guy and his overgrown lady-friend. They had some sort of a spat and have separated. Neither of them is with the gang."
"Oh. Them. Commoners. Why is that of import?"