Lights and Voices
Through a great roaring of storming lights and exploding sound, Flewingam heard a voice beside him calling out his name.
“Flew! Flew, old fellow, can you hear me?”
It was faintly familiar, yet blurry at the edges, and Flewingam sensed that he was angry, and he did not want to be awakened at this particular moment, for he was just remembering, for the time in a long while, how good a long ,nap in a soft bed was.
“Flew! Wake up, we’ve crossed the River.”
At those words, his eyes blinked open, and he stared straight into the worried frown of his friend Otter.
“Calix Stay?” repeated Flewingam aloud, trying to take in the full meaning of the thought.
He felt odd indeed, and could not quite put his finger on it, until he saw the broad smile cross Otter’s features.
“We’re here, Flew. The Meadows of the Sun. Or at one end of them, at any rate. I’ve never been in these particular parts, but it doesn’t take much to tell we’re across the River again. It’s just like I was always trying to tell you.”
Flewingam sat up and looked about, fighting the confusion and fear that he felt. “But what happened?” His voice carried a trace of doubt.
“I’m not sure, except that there was a lot of water and noise. I’m not one to complain about too much water, but I think there was a flood. I keep thinking we were in an underground river, or something about rocks that walked.”
“The Roots,” said Flewingam. “And Bear was washed away first. And Thumb, and the rest?” he said excitedly, remembering at once the events that had happened. He could not say how long ago it had occurred, or exactly where, but he distinctly remembered the flashing bright lights that exploded through his memory, and the noise of the flooded cavern, and the greater noise and brighter flashes that followed. He seemed to remember Otter’s descriptions of this River, so long ago now, yet it all seemed so familiar.
Otter had raised himself up, and was studying their surroundings, his small muzzle worked into a frown. “I don’t remember these parts much. Or I do, but then again something’s changed. I think the light isn’t so bright.”
He squinted away into the direction that the golden sheen of mellow warmth seemed to come from, and he gasped aloud and pointed. “It’s almost setting,” he breathed. “It wasn’t that low before.”
“Do you think the trouble has spread even here, friend?” asked Flewingam.
Otter turned a frightened glance on his companion. “And where is Bear, and Thumb, and Lilly, and their friends?” His eyes darkened, and a wave of sadness tore at his heart. “And will we never see our Dwarf again? He was the one that needed to be here, to deliver the Chest. But we’re here instead, and lost, and alone, to boot.”
Flewingam got up from the soft ground where he’d found himself sitting. “I don’t know what’s been happening here, but I don’t like the feel of it.”
“Let’s look for the others,” suggested Otter, trying to cheer himself. “Perhaps they’ve landed somewhere nearby.”
Flewingam sighed wearily. “I can’t see any point, my friend, but then it’s better than just sitting here. And we might come across our supper while we’re at it. If we’re to be here with nothing to show for it, I hope we can at least find a bite or two, and a warm place to lie down.”
Otter plodded along a few paces ahead of his friend. “It seems like we were taken on a wild-goose chase, Flew,” he went on after a moment. “And goodness knows I’m fond enough of those, except this time we’ve been up one side of the world, down another, without so much as a handkerchief or a decent meal, and now this again. And I’ve lost Bear and Dwarf, on top of it all.” Otter had stopped and stood staring at his friend. A great tear shone in his eye, and his chin whiskers quivered.
“Well, I did get to see Cypher, and meet the Golden Lady, and Cybelle. And I got to have a companion like our Dwarf for a time. And I have known some of the Masters, and seen more than my share of good water.” He choked back a sob. “And I’ve been a long mile or two with you, Flew, and we’ve seen some foul times, we have, between us. And we had good comrades in Cranny and Ned.”
Flewingam had stopped, and was staring at the little gray fellow.
“Not to mention the fact we were with Dwarf, who was carrying the Chest back to safety here,” continued Otter, his voice tight. “Only now here we are, and nothing really matters now, because it’s all changed here, and I don’t even want to stay here anymore.”
Flewingam went to his friend and gave the little animal a gentle pat. His own eyes were glistening, and his voice shook as he spoke. “That’s the way it looks, on the face of it, old fellow. But we must go on and try to find the others. I don’t think there’s a choice now.”
Otter bit back a sniffle, and wrinkled his brow. “Well, let’s just walk on awhile, and see if we can find out what’s happening. I think if we just try to do that, we won’t have far to go to our next plan.”
Flewingam had started to agree, when the sound of voices reached the friends. They froze to the spot, and tried to listen to what the voices were saying. A loud humming seemed to grow from the very air, followed by a faint, faraway rattle of drums. And then, quite distinctly, came a rather feathery voice, right at Otter’s elbow.
“What have we here, and what errand are you on that you’re traveling about in those silly forms? Speak quickly, before we deal with you as we should have the moment we detected you cross our borders.” There was something irksome in the tone of the invisible voice, but it was frightening all the same, coming as it did out of thin air.
Otter’s hackles quavered, and his lips crept back to expose his fangs, and he stepped back a pace so that he could go into his fighting stance.
“Ooooch, ouch! You silly thing, you’ve crushed my stump. Watch out, please, so as not to mash me.”
Otter whirled, but there was nothing to be seen.
“And why won’t you look at me when I’m speaking to you? I don’t think you’re nice at all, you know.” The unseen voice was constrained and teasing, and more irritating than ever.
Otter, being the shorter of the two, had glanced at the ground, for the voice was coming from somewhere low down, and he could have almost sworn it was near the small plant that Flewingam had just roughly brushed with his foot.
On his stomach, with his muzzle almost touching the small green thing, Otter spoke. “Is this you?”
“Of course, silly. Who did you think I was?”
“Well, I’m not sure,” replied Otter. “But I guess we’ve seen stranger things.”
“What, may I ask, is so strange in the figure of an elf?” The voice was highly indignant.
“An elf?” echoed Flew and Otter together.
“Naturally, you thickheaded beasts. Or are you? I can see right enough one of you is human, at any rate. Not that that means anything. What do you want here, and who are you? Or did I ask that? We have orders that none shall cross the River without plain and proper reason to be here. Speak up, speak up.”
“And we might ask the same of you,” shot Otter, trying to address the small green plant that the voice seemed to be coming from.
“I’m quite sure you have two good eyes. An elf, as you see, at your service, an elf in charge of these borders, along with my men. That is my errand.”
As the voice ceased, a dozen or more of the same feathery voices piped up all around the two friends. “Hear, hear, and what’s your errand?” demanded one.
“More’s the pity we don’t have permission to shoot ’em,” said another.
A chorus of confused voices went on.
“Let’s have it. What’s your tricks?”
“A likely lot, and full of their shoddy doings.”
The first voice rose a tone above the others. “Later, later, men.”
It waited until the others had died down somewhat, then went on. “Well, out with it. Let’s have it.”
“If you’re really elves, you don’t look like any I’ve ever met,” snapped Otter.
“And where would the likes of you ever have the honor of meeting an elf? Such drab creatures. I hardly think you would have a need to meet anyone at all who didn’t go about in a poor human’s form, or down on all fours.”
“Hear, hear,” piped up the other voices, coming from the grass, and other plants near the friends.
Flewingam had raised himself to his fullest height, and was on the verge of smashing down one of his booted feet to flatten the small plant below him.
“Wait, Flew,” chittered Otter, and he turned arid addressed the invisible voice.
“Now, friend elf, if elf indeed you are, which I wonder from your tongue, to answer your questions. We met elves at the court of the Golden Lady of Cypher, and those fellows were ever so polite and generous, and sang such music as I doubt you’ve ever heard. And we have traveled with Broco, gypsy dwarf, on his quest for the Circle, and spoken with and fought beside Mithramuse Cairngarme, better known as Greymouse, and have been befriended by Greyfax Grimwald and Froghorn Fairingay. And we would have you for friends, if you will, or enemies, if you won’t, but think twice about your answer to the companions of the Circle.”
There was an unbroken silence for a space of time, then Flewingam and Otter detected a heavy fog like mist that began to rise from the ground, swirling and gray, turning silver in the golden sunlight as it slanted through the stillness of the meadow. A faint tinkling of a bell was heard, and then the humming sound again, like a wind through an old forest, and there before the bewildered friends stood a dozen green-clad elves, long bows in hand, and short mithra worked swords hanging from their belts. They were smaller than the elves Otter had met in Cypher, yet they had the same fair features, and the same clear blue-gray eyes.
One of the elves stepped forward and made a low, sweeping bow, doffing his hat as he did so.
“You are asked to pardon our rudeness,” said the elf, his voice taking on a sudden oily smoothness. “There can be no excuses, except that we had hardly dared hope ever to meet the Otter from the stories of Cypher. Those were never supposed to have been anything more than someone’s fancy at making a good tune. More times than not, we often scoffed at the elf kindred who traveled through our woods here, on their way to havens, and even when our own kindred, who had been in or about Cypher, told us these stories, we hardly believed them. But since you say you are indeed that very Otter, we have instructions to take you to our camp, for there is someone there most anxious to see you.”
Otter gasped, and Flewingam’s eyes grew wider.
“But in the meantime,” the elf went on evenly, “I beg your forgiveness for Belwicke, poor host that he is, and the poor woodland folk at your noble service.”
Otter returned the elf’s stiff bow. “We’re very pleased to make your acquaintance, Belwicke, and honored to have such friends. But who ever do we know that is still here, on this side of Calix Stay?”
“We call him by many names, some you’ve heard, and some you’ve not. And it’s no one you’ve known here before. You will probably recognize him best by the name…” The elf paused for a long moment. “Froghorn Fairingay.”
Before the stunned companions could reply, the elfin company had set off at a great pace, and the two friends were hard pressed to keep the small figures in sight.
Copyright © 1977, 2004 by Niel Hancock