It was cold, and wet.
The unbelievable snow had been falling steadily for weeks on end, and the old man was weary; tired of running, tired of dodging the City Guard, tired of leading them on this endless run-around. It was time, he thought, to get this Game on the road.
" Nothings the same anymore" he grumbled to himself, absently shifting the small bundle he held in his arms into a more comfortable position. " Bloody Daffyd! Had to go and set everything on its bloody ear..!"
He walked with the ease of use through the dense forest, heading towards a clearing he knew lay some half-mile away. When at the treeline, he stood for some minutes, studying the open field and clearings that now lay before him.
"Bugger!" he muttered. Land he knew man and boy, carefully tended for generations, now lay deep in mud and snow, blasted and barren. This field, which no less than two months ago had been verdant, lush with the first growth of spring, was nothing more than a trampled and littered charnel wasteland. Huge scorched and blacked patches bore witness to the battle. Scattered everywhere were the gnawed carcasses; hundreds of casualties of many races, all ages. The battlefield was that removed from the City, that the bodies lay as the animals had left them, undefiled by those who would seek out places such as these, and loot the dead.
In the midst of this abomination, were the remains of what once was a prosperous farmhouse, it too a bizarre sculpted destruction. Charred and gutted, parts of it apparently remained standing for the simple reason it would be too much effort to collapse.
Still, thought the old man, it is standing, so to speak, and its shelter, while limited, would be an improvement on that which he had. Again casting a thorough eye about for signs of the Guard, he slowly stepped out of the trees, then gathered himself and ran like the clappers of doom for the house.
Foundering in knee-high snow with his bundle still clutched under his arm, he found the remnants of the main door garlanded with snow hanging almost decoratively from the low thatching which survived, almost meeting the drifts outside. Puffing with the effort, he pushed his way inside, and leaning against the doorway, again searched for the Guard or their dogs. Seeing nothing, he finally snorted a breath in relief, and turned to look within.
Twont take more than a quarter hour for this wind to cover my tracks he thought, and his attentions turned to what remained within the ruin, which might be of some use. But worse was what remained inside, than that which had become the exterior. Worse because signs of the home it had been still remained, albeit smashed and scattered about the room. Ominous dark stains were everywhere the snow was not.
"This," exclaimed the old man in a twisting fit of anger, " is what the whole Shire has become since Daffyd destroyed his Keep.. since the mad Elf blew himself and the rest of us too all to hell and gone! A world were left with that none of us recognise, and fewer can exist in. Damn him for his arrogance! Damn him, for being right!"
Taking a moment and gathering calm like an old cloak, he slowly walked to the centre of the room, and gently righted a table which by some miracle had survived, deeply scarred, but otherwise intact. He set his bundle down with great care, and removing his cloak, wrapped the parcel within its soft grey folds.
He stood for a moment in the gloom of the deepening evening, and giving his head a slight rueful shake, waved his hands in a short series of gestures. Softly, a warm glow began to permeate the shattered room, easing the edges of destruction, the pain of the wreckage, chasing the shadows towards the corners like a terrier after a rat.
The light revealed a man of medium height, slight in build, but with an air of one who would not be trifled with to advantage. He stood easily in the room, with what remained of its seven foot ceiling well above his head. He carried himself ramrod straight, and without a careful look at his face and silver hair, he would have appeared to be in his forties, perhaps beginning the path to the end of his first half-century. Even in his face itself, when closely examined, his true age was indistinct. He gave the impression of boundless experience, but unless one was allowed to look deeply into his eyes, one would not have a ghost of a chance of a clear understanding of how ageless, or how much experience. Lines radiated from his eyes into his upper cheeks, etched by a lifetime of smiles, and squinting into the brightness of the sun. At this moment, they were gullies of fatigue; ravines of weariness. And he was hungry, too.
The old man made a last visual sweep of the room, and turned his attention towards the small package lying within his cloak on the battered table. He stared at it for a moment or two, his eyes misting.
" Its all for you to do now" he whispered. " All for the likes of you to sort out. Buggered if this couldnt all be one pathetic attempt of humour on the part of the younger gods." He leaned over the cloak and its bundle, and in an even quieter voice murmured " Im afraid, you know."
At that point, the bundle began to wail, as though the world was about to end, again.
"Bugger" said the old man, and made a few desultory finger movements. The bottle of milk, complete with nipple that appeared from thin air, hovered over the package for a moment, in fact closer to a mere second, before descending gently within the folds of the cloak. A huge smacking sound ensued, as the level of the liquid decreased with amazing speed. In less than a minute it was empty, and the sounds had changed to something akin to an industrial hoover swallowing velvet drapes. This however, soon stopped, and following a brief moment of silence, the cloak shook with the violence of the belch that issued from within, and after a moment more, soft breathing, quite audible, and nothing more.
The bottle, following what appeared to be an instant of indecision, disappeared.
The old man blinked in surprise. ".But I didnt do that.." he muttered as he walked closer to the now quiet bundle and looked down at the child wrapped within. The infant, as though aware of the attention, opened an eye, and smiled.
This drew both an answering smile and an involuntary shudder from the old man, as again he pondered the caprice of the Fates, that a Swamp Elf had been chosen for their purposes. For truth be told, they were not the best looking representatives of their fair race. They lived in undefined areas between the sea and the hills, a good distance from the traditional Elven woodlands, moving from site to site in search of land they could be comfortable in for a while, before it sank beneath their feet. They were Elvish, and heir to all attributes associated with forest types, they just werent fair, of face or manner. They were the Tinkers, the Travellers, of the Elven Race. Swarthy, and given to rather large eyes and noses, they were held in what kindly could be called disdain by their more graceful cousins. And they cared not a whit.
That, at least, was more the rule than otherwise. A true exception to the rule had been the mother of the child now in his care. Never had there been a more beautiful and gentle woman, and that indeed had been the cause of much of the present problem. She had attracted the eyes of many other than the late lamented father of this orphaned child.
She had been too smart.. the old man fumed to himself not to have known what was to come. She was too adept at the Art to have walked into this blindly.. Yet she had allowed the suite to be pursued and consummated, for no better reason than love.
Now, here was he, saddled with a child he was bound to protect, at least for the now, and City Guard to escape, preferably for good.
It was the saddest Spring he had ever endured, and he had passed quite a few of them.
He and the infant spent something less than a week in the ruins of the farmhouse, while the City Guard combed the countryside, and the old man made plans. While there were often signs the Guard had been in their vicinity, the Wards he had set were more than adequate to confuse the searchers. While intelligence was prized in the Guard, it was fortunately rare.
There finally came the morning the old man felt it was safe for them to be on their way. He carefully packed their gear, collected the child in a chest sling, and took one last look about the place. This was not an action taken lightly. He wanted this scene to be etched indelibly in his mind so , in years soon to come when the boy began asking questions, the old man would have something to fuel his anger again. It would be of tremendous importance the boy knew a sense of outrage, when he was told the simple facts.
The telling of this tale would need inflame the boy, to make him sure of the Path hed follow.
So, the mans eyes caressed every stick of smashed furniture, shard of shattered crockery, page of torn and trampled books and pictures; his gaze rested on everything as it lay. Then he turned to leave.
As he pushed his way through the snow which had drifted in through the shattered doorway, he turned and once again looked at the table he had set upright when he first arrived.
It stood, virtually untouched, amid the chaos.