The Road Home

Sometime later and Brennan has found a road. He’s been following it ever since. He still has no clue if the direction he is heading in is the correct one, but he cannot doubt how much easier it is to follow the edge of this wide dirt track as opposed to trudging over uneven ground, like he had been previously. More than once while crossing the fields before this discovery he had almost dropped into a ditch as a result of tall grasses that had obscured their presence from view. He’d grumbled each time but quickly recovered his composure, reminded himself that it is affording him fresh air and exercise on a lovely day and carried on.

With him on the road however, the dwarf no longer has to force himself into a good mood to defend against the dangers of uneven terrain and unforeseeable drops. As a result Brennan is whistling a merry old tune. It’s one his grandmother had taught him when he’d been barely to her knee. He misses her terribly but she had a very good life. Those were her words to him on her death bed. Still, she offered him the challenge, as is woodland dwarf custom, to live a better one. At the time he’d been lost, terrified that he’d never be able to live up to such a lofty expectation. However, as he grew older he came to understand her challenge. It wasn’t what it first seemed. Well, it was but its difficulty wasn’t. Being a dwarf in the Horheim is itself an easy life. While there is plenty of work to undertake it is not what he would call grim. He’s a carpenter after all and gets to whittle away his days making things with his hands. In his mind there is no better vocation. It’s all he has ever wanted, and he wouldn’t swap with a single soul. Not even the elders. Many think him mad for that, but Brennan cannot comprehend as to why anyone would wish to will their lives away and skip to the end. Doing that, in his mind, means that you would miss the journey and that is what life is about, the journey. It’s your journey, everyone’s is different, but to wish it gone is nonsensical to him. But his beliefs are often questioned, in a friendly manner of course. There is no judgement; everyone’s life is their own. That is the way of the woodland dwarves. Understanding and acceptance of another of their kin’s chosen path is commonplace. From what little, and it is little Brennan will freely admit, he knows of the world beyond, which he is now walking through, the same cannot be said. He’s heard about the struggles of the ogres, the giants and most of all humans. They appear to suffer the most hardship. Pity, he thinks as he would someday like to meet one. He doesn’t know what he would do if he did but from the knowledge that has been shared with him they are no different than dwarves, except larger. His mental picture is something akin to an elf. He saw some once when he was young. They came to Horheim. He doesn’t know why and until this moment had forgotten all about it. Maybe he should inquire when he returns home. He shrugs knowing that so long has passed that there is likely little point, and so he turns back to the world around him. His wide short legs continue to carry his slight weight. If he were in his second or third age a walk like this, however long it might be as he does not know yet, would prove exhausting. You see dwarves tend to double in size once they get out of their first age. It’s a bit like the change that happens in the third age when the elders give up on any attempt to remain clean shaven. Brennan would too if he was forced to shave four times a day to have any hope of keeping the growth in check. He often wonders how the elders do it but then by the time they get to that age they no longer work. That is how dwarven society, at least in Horheim, is configured. The young and middle aged work to build and maintain what they have while the elders, who have already had their long days of such work, rest to offer advice and insight to those younger than them.

Suddenly, the birdsong seems to double in volume. It draws Brennan from his thoughts. He looks up and gazes at the giant mesh of overhanging branches that shelter this stretch of the road. He cannot see the birds. That leaves him with a short-lived burst of disappointment, which is quickly forgotten as a result of the chipper notes that fill his ears. How could be remain downbeat with such a lovely back and forth melody in his ears? He joins in with a whistle meant to mimic what he’s hearing. It’s close but isn’t perfect. Nevertheless he continues unabashed. The birds don’t seem to be bothered by the imperfection of his participation, plus it has the added effect of putting a spring in his step. That spring after a time turns into an almost skip and sees Brennan bound down the edge of the empty road, eyes closed until he hears, “Good mourn to you.”

Brennan comes to a halt, his whistle ending on a sour note just as his eyes open to look around for the owner of the voice. Two movements of his dark brown eyes later and they have come to rest on a grey looking man who is hunched over. Grey fronds of hair leak from beneath the edges of his hat. It looks as though his hat should go to a point but alas is instead folded over so that the point is hanging down near one of his partially covered ears. His eyes are green, a little dull but marry quite well with his turquoise and black garments as he stands behind a plank of wood. It’s long but not particularly deep and sits atop two short stacks of shallow open topped square crates.

“Good morning to you too.” Brennan replies with a warm smile as well as a slight nod of his head now that he’s turned toward the man. He’s much taller than Brennan, who suspects he might be a human. He feels excited. He’s never seen or met a human before and so far his impression is that they are just as he had been told, appearance wise. Still, if this greying man is anything to go by then they must be about twice his height. That is a great deal taller than he imagined but he feels no reason to be wary. Nothing about this man strikes the dwarf as threatening.

“You look to be a man of opportunity. Is that so?” The greying man asks with a wide smile.

Brennan chuckles. He knows the tone of a merchant when he hears one. It is good to know that no matter the species some things are universal. However, that is not what he would have considered this man to be if he had gone off appearance alone. His words however, they are unmistakable.

“I am not sadly, no. I carry no coin. I am simply heading home.” Brennan replies honestly. It’s how he was raised. It’s how all in Horheim are raised.

“Pity but I respect your honesty. Though, I do feel compelled to ask, are you a dwarf?” The grey man has a raised eyebrow as he utters his question. Its looks bushier as a result of the arch shape that it is now formed into.

“I am.” Brennan replies with pride.

“Then you must be on a long journey for there are no mines in these parts.” The greying man states a little confused and astounded that a lone dwarf is daring to walk these roads alone. Sure, they are safe when compared to the lanes, but still this man, Frederick, is impressed. He knows of few men who would risk such things. Chiefly because there are bandits, always have and will be, that stalk the roads and they do not care as to who might cross their path. Then again, if this dwarf is without coin then perhaps… No, bandits and highwaymen would never believe such a claim, surely. Maybe he should try it himself if he ever comes across one again. Frederick has only ever had the misfortune once. He passed the coin. It wasn’t worth his life. It never will be. No amount. Well, almost no amount. Everyone has their limits, a price at which they would risk there life. Frederick’s is high, or at least he thinks it is. Thankfully, or sadly depending on your view, he has never been in possession of such a sum.

“I’m not that sort of dwarf.” Brennan replies humoured. He isn’t surprised this man has leapt to the conclusion that he has, but perhaps, since they are conversing, he might be able to help point him in the direction of home. After all, surely everyone must have heard of the great Horvingham Forest. It’s where Horheim resides. It’s an area that spans for many a mile in all directions with trees ranging from a size similar to his grey merchant up to that which would put a giant to shame.

“Not that sort of dwarf? I’m afraid I do not understand, young one. There is only one sort of dwarf to my knowing and that is the kind who dwells in mines.” Frederick replies unable to conceal how puzzled he is by Brennan’s claims.

Young one, Brennan has to stifle a roar of laughter after hearing that. In truth this man is likely not so different in age to he. It’s just that human’s and dwarves have very different life expectancies. Still, it would be rude, in Brennan’s eyes, to cry with laughter unchecked. It is not this man’s fault that he is unaware of the dwarves age, or that there is more than one type of dwarf. In fact, Brennan is quite relieved to hear that humans seem to know as little about his kind as he does theirs. He can’t explain as to why that it, but it’s true. Strange, he thinks before explaining, “I’m a woodland dwarf, born on the surface of this glorious world, much like you. I have never lived nor wish to in the dark mines like my cousins, the subterranean dwarves.”

“Truly?” Frederick exclaims impressed and intrigued by what Brennan has said. To be honest he has never heard of such a thing. Yet, he feels there is no reason to doubt the young stout fellow before him who is clad in simple garments of dark brown wool over which is a tan coloured leather apron. If it were stained he’d think this dwarf, of the woods, a butcher but it is not. Frederick attempts to consider what this dwarfs profession might be, but alas he cannot. He is drawing a blank. In part due to just how numerous the possibilities are.

“Absolutely.” Brennan replies with a cheery tone of voice. However, right after he looks down as though he wishes to say something but isn’t sure it is the right moment to do so.

“What’s on your mind? Speak it. Do not hold your tongue. Whatever you ask will not offend, I assure you.” Frederick replies and fully means it.

In the merchants half century upon this world he has been called every name under the sun. In fact, he thinks some might even have been invented just to insult him and his profession. As a result he’s grown a very thick skin. Questions, claims, insults, hold no sway over him. Regardless of what some might say, and many others think but do not have the stones to verbalise, he is a simple man trying to make his way in the world. He isn’t after a quick pouch of coin, just an honest living. However, he understands that not all merchants are so principled.

“Oh… Well I was wondering if you could give me directions?” Brennan sounding more like his normal self as more words leap from between his rosy coloured lips.

“And you went quiet and meek over that? Of course, where is it you are trying to reach? I know these lands well. I travel them, so let me help.” Frederick replies with a wide cast of his arms. Its habit, learned not natural and stems from his years of being a merchant attempting to entice people to peruse his wares. They’re every changing but at this time quite limited.

“Oh, thank you.” Brennan says feeling such elation he could almost burst as a result of this greying human’s kindness. He is nothing like some of the stories he had heard. They spoke of humans being violent and relentlessly angry. In fact, he is most definitely more like the tales his grandmother told him of humans when he’d been a little dot. That brings him a huge sense of satisfaction, not that he ever doubted her words. He just… he had reservations. In the same way not all dwarves are sociable and pleasant souls, Brennan imagined the same might be the case with humans and you never know which you are going to meet, if you do meet that is.

“I’m looking for Horvingham Forest.” The woodland dwarf declares soon after.

Frederick thinks for a time. His brow wrinkling deeply as he does so. The name is not instantly familiar to him. In fact, he is sure he has never heard it at any point in all his long days. It makes him wonder how far this dwarf might have travelled, when he was last at this place he seeks and how it is he has come to reach where he stands now. Finally, following nearly five minutes of silent thinking Frederick has to admit, “I do not know it my friend. Horvingham is not a name I have seen or heard. Could you describe it to me? Perhaps it has a different name in these parts. Oft is the case.”

“Oh, um, well… Where are these parts?” Brennan feels inclined to query over and above the question that has been asked of him which more than likely would benefit his aim of reaching home.

“Well right now you are stood on Victory Road. It runs from Fenburg to Rosenhill.” Frederick gestures as he speaks the place names. At first the grey man signals left, from Brennan’s perspective, and then right. The dwarf has no knowledge of these places. It seems they are as foreign to him as Horvingham is to the merchant before him. He really should get his name. Brennan feels awful for keep thinking of this soul, who has agreed so kindly to aid him, in the manner which he is.

“You don’t know these names, do you?” Frederick utters having read the look on Brennan’s face. In response the dwarf issues a quick couple of side to side shakes of his head. Frederick nods in understanding. He isn’t surprised, but defeat is not something he, as a merchant, is quick to accept.

“Horvingham Forest, what is it like?” Brennan had forgotten that this merchant had wanted to hear him describe it previously and is now only aware of it once more because this man has been kind enough to ask for a second time. He feels foolish but offers no further dallying as he informs, “It’s a massive expanse of trees. Some are your height while others large enough to dwarf giants. And beyond its rough hewn border lie meadows which during summer are crammed to bursting with poppies. They look akin to a sea of red and stretch as far as the eye can see, most spectacular.”

“I know the place. You are miles from it to be truthful.” Frederick pauses for the briefest of moments and then queries, “However, did you end up so far out this way?”

The dwarf turns, indicates with his thumb the empty jug of mead on his back and mutters a little embarrassed, “I overindulged a tad more than perhaps I should.”

Frederick bursts into laughter. He has a hearty laugh. So hearty in fact that it sounds as though it should belong to a much larger man. Larger not in terms of stature but instead in terms of mass; rotund would be the best and most polite form of a description to offer.

“I would say that is more than a tad my friend. I’m Frederick by the way. I should have introduced myself earlier, but alas it slipped my old noggin.” Frederick taps at his left temple. He wears a wide smile on his face, a chuckle still leaking from between his thin lips, as he does so.

“Brennan. It’s very nice to meet you.” The dwarf offers in response. He feels a lot better now that he and Frederick are introduced.

“As it is you Brennan. But we should get you on your way. It’s quite a walk and time is getting on. If I were headed that way I’d give you a ride on my cart but alas I am not, sadly.” Frederick looks and sounds quite deflated to have to admit that. He wishes he were headed in that direction as it’s been a long time since the old merchant has had decent company, and Brennan definitely fits that description in his mind.

“That’s OK. It’s a pleasant day and the walk will do me good after drinking all that mead.” The dwarf assures with a chuckle at his own expense.

“That it will. That it will. Well, let me think. Horvingham would be down this road a good couple miles. There you’ll reach a fork. Take it right. After that you’ll climb a hill, steeper than you will like, but once at its zenith you’ll find a crossroads, but you can ignore it as you’ll see your forest. From their it’s a straight shot past the fields that in summer are filled with those red poppies and bang,” Frederick slaps his hands together which makes a quick loud smack, “you’ll be home soon after.”

“Thank you Frederick. Thank you, thank you. I’m sorry I have no coin. I feel bad for not offering payment for your aid.” Brennan exclaims delighted.

Frederick waves off Brennan feeling poorly due to being unable to offer compensation. “It is nothing. Though, I shall warn you these roads are not safe. Be wary of suspicious types for there are bandits and others similar who live to prey on those that travel these well trod avenues.”

Brennan nods fully understanding the warning that has been given to him. Right after Frederick looks up through a small gap in the mesh of thick leafed branches above and urges, “Now on your way Brennan. It was a pleasure. Though, I do hope our paths will cross again someday.”

“Yes, you’re right. Goodbye Frederick. I too hope we meet again in the days yet to come.” Brennan waves as he strides away, a new lease of life spurring him forward.

Still, he was happy for the rest he must admit as he continues waving and smiling back at the greying merchant who he is leaving behind.

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