“The Trufflers”

 

Copyright Jack Sutter 2019-2020

 

In the Fairworld, nestled in the heart of the continent of Eptomar, there lie the noble kingdoms of the elfkin, the sons and daughters of the fairy folk.  Perhaps the littlest and least among these was Essenet. There were no great cities in Essenet, no mighty fortresses or great citadels. It was a peaceful land, a quiet and serene corner of the world, resting under the protection of a mighty elven king who was conveniently far away.

 

It was June, and the air was warm and humid, hanging over the world in a mildly oppressive manner like a damp curtain.  The sky was clear and bright, and beneath it there lay a land of gently rolling hills covered in spongy green treetops and small patchwork fields enclosed by rows of poplars.  

 

Piercing through the treetops, was a lone tower of brown stone.  At its top was a spindly slate spire, beneath which were four sets of double arched windows looking out to the east, west, north and south, watching serenely on all four points of the compass.  It was a bell tower, and a bright light shone in the windows as the afternoon sun was reflected on the polished surface of a set of bronze bells.

 

Not far from the tower, the treeline dipped into a shallow crease in the land, where a stream ambled its way through the countryside, babbling its little woes and troubles to itself as the water tumbled over smooth cobbles and around twisted roots.

 

Standing in the stream was an elven girl.  Her eyes were bright green, her ears were short and pointed, her hair was long and chestnut colored, and her name was Anyn.  She was stripped to the waist, and her underskirt was hiked up and tucked into a thin leather belt. Even so, she was still managing to get her clothes quite wet as she wandered deeper into the stream, her face focused and intent as her eyes probed the shallow depths of the water.

 

There, yes there it was.  Anyn stooped over, pausing briefly to brush a few strands of her hair out of the way, and reaching into the cool water she extracted an odd, funnel shaped basket from the bed of the stream.  It was a crayfish trap, and as Anyn held up the basket in the sunlight and peered inside she could see that there were three of the brown colored crustaceans inside. That made eight for today, enough to make a good supper for old Gopil, the Bellkeeper.  

 

Suddenly, Anyn gave a start as from the direction of the bell tower there came a sharp, unpleasant ringing sound which reverberated piercingly through the treetops.  The noise was not from one of the great bronze bells, for theirs was a deep and melodious voice, but came rather from an iron ring with a voice like a steel cockerel, which the Bellkeeper used to summon his assistants.  With a squeak, Anyn turned around and splashed her way back to the bank. Fumbling for a moment with the basket she shook out its contents and dumped the crayfish into a clay jar. She then grabbed her shoes and a bundle of her belongings and began to run towards the tower, only to turn around again almost immediately and return to put a lid on the jar.  She then turned back again and ran through the woods, her one free arm trailing to her side and her hair streaming behind her as the air was filled with another round of coarse ringing from the tower.

 

In a few moments she had reached the tower.  It was surrounded by a small clearing which contained not only the tower but also a cottage with a fenced in garden and a few outbuildings.  Without pausing, Anyn ran to the tower and clambered up several flights of stairs until she reached a large bare room where eight silken ropes dangled from the very top of the tower through a set of square holes in the ceiling.  It was hot and stuffy in the room already, in a few moments it would be even hotter and stuffier.

 

There was a thumping sound from the wooden starwell, and through the door old Gopil himself came at last.  The Bellkeeper was a wiry old elf man with long, unkempt white hair and an equally long and unkempt beard. He was shirtless and barefoot, dressed in a long saffron colored half gown which was already half soaked with sweat.  Without speaking, the Bellkeeper and his assistant threw themselves onto the ropes, heaving and panting as they jumped back and forth rhythmically between each cable, while high above them the bells began to ring with a gentle authority, filling the woods with a simple melody in a characteristically elven mode.  Ten times each day the bells were rung, marking each of the Seven Magic Hours of the day, and the Three Magic Hours of the night. The song of the bells rang out through the forest, passing over the treetops and down into the chimneys and windows of many small workshops which were scattered throughout the surrounding woodlands, wherein keen elven artificers crafted all manner of magical potions and remedies.  There were certain potions which could only be brewed at certain mystical hours, and the elven craftsmen depended upon the great bell and its keeper to announce the commencement of each such hour. It was simple magic, the kind which is most needed by ordinary folk, treatments for boring ailments and elixirs for the softening of common troubles. These were sold to foreign merchants who came regularly to Essenet who in turn resold them again to other travelling merchants and peddlers who carried them to faraway lands to people who had never heard of a land called Essenet.  

 

In a few minutes, the song of the bell tower was over.  Across the woodlands, the elven brewers were settling down at their tables and benches to begin their next round of labor for the day, while back at the tower the old Bellkeeper and his assistant just finished theirs.

 

Anyn leaned back against the nearest wall with a sigh, the last echos of the bell still ringing in her ears.  Ringing the bells was laborious, and there was a reason why old Gopil needed someone to help him, particularly in the summer.  Anyn’s body was dripping with sweat in the humid air, and her hair was wet and sticking to her skin. She was thankful that this was the last time she had to ring the bells today, and she was looking forward to returning to the stream and throwing her sticky self into it.  

 

The old Bellkeeper paused for a moment, listening to the silence.  Then, without a word he turned and descended the stairs from whence he came.  Anyn gathered her things and followed him down to a room on the first floor of the tower.  Gopil went straight to a cupboard and retrieved a great jug of water, which he poured out into to a pair of voluminous wooden tankards for himself and his assistant.  After taking a few deep drafts, the old man then took a cloth and soaking it with water he began to lathe his rickety limbs. The old elf was every bit as sweaty as Anyn, and significantly smellier.  Anyn sighed, waiting for her dismissal as Gopil carried on without speaking and then began to putter about the room.

 

Finnally, Anyn cleared her throat.

 

“Eh?”, Gopil said as he looked up from whatever he was doing.  “Something the matter, Anyn?”

 

“Yes, if you don’t mind.  I thought I might go back to the stream and see if I can catch a few more crayfish.”

 

“No need, my girl.  You’re free to leave for today.  Seval will be here soon to help for the evening watch, and he said that he and Atalf would be bringing me some fresh game for supper.”

 

At this, Anyn drew a sharp breath as her heart quickened just a little bit.

 

“Atalf is coming?”

 

“Oh yes, I’m sure they’ll be here any minute now.  I hope they’re bringing nice breast of pheasant. I love a good pheasant.  A nice breast of pheasant would be a welcome change from crayfish. Did you know that I once ate nothing but crayfish for an entire year?”

 

Gopil went on talking, but Anyn had stopped listening.  It had been several days since she’d last seen Atalf, and the last time had been but briefly.  The cool water of the stream could wait. She pretended to listen as Gopil kept talking and began collecting her things.  Hastily she donned an amber colored overskirt, even as the layer beneath it was still wet, and throwing on a cropped leather bodice she quickly began lacing it up.  Gopil was still talking as she pulled on her shoes and at last excused herself.

 

Anyn bolted outside, and made her way to a tree which stood near the narrow dirt road which led to the bell tower.  And there she waited, idle and anxious, watching the road eagerly. She was still tired and sweaty, and the cool waters of the nearby stream beckoned to her, but she ignored its call and remained stationed beneath her tree like a sentinel at his post, waiting.  Just waiting.

 

She waited for what seemed like an eon.  And then all of a sudden, there came through the forest the voices of young men talking gaily, and in a moment the object of her long vigil at last rounded into sight.

 

Atalf was a wiry sort of elf, muscular and lean of build, with long blonde hair which draped silkily over his shoulders.  He wore a tight fitting, sleeveless brown leather jerkin which left his sinewy arms bare, and a pair of tall laced-up boots which went well past his knees.  In one hand he carried a dead pheasant strung on a cord like a fish on a line, while at his side was a voluminous leather bag full of all manner of exotc plants, strange herbs, and rare fungal fruits.  On his back he carried a bow and quiver, and strapped to his waist he bore a large Woodknife, the ancient tool and sidearm of the wood elves. For Atalf was a Truffler.

 

As any young person in Essenet would attest, being a Truffler was by far the most illustrious and romantic occupation one could have.  The Elfkin have a long history of living in woods and forests, which was no less true in Essenet. For the elixirs brewed by the elves of Essenet required all manner of weird and wondrous ingredients, ingredients which the surrounding woodlands had in abundance.  But someone had to go out into the woods and find all these queer things, and that someone was a Truffler. The Trufflers spent their days rooting around through the forest floor in search of special herbs or valuable mushrooms, laying traps for small exotic creatures or hurtling through the woods in pursuit of them.  The Trufflers had a reputation as a carefree and autonomous lot, roaming the woodlands as they did and being left largely to their own devices. No bells or magic hours governed the course of their days. Likewise too the Trufflers were seen as brave and adventurous sorts, for these woods were full of wild and untamed magic and many equally wild and untamed creatures.

 

Walking beside Atalf was Seval, a young elf man dressed in a long green gown, who could very well have passed as a younger version of old Gopil the Bellkeeper, and indeed it was thought that Seval would ultimately assume the role whenever Gopil would at last quit his post.  Seval was a nice fellow and Anyn liked him. But her eyes were only for Atalf. Her breath quickened and she felt a sort of painful thrill at the sight of him. She tried to smile, and her hand jerked up and sort of twitched with a spasm that was supposed to have been a friendly wave.  Her heart nearly leaped as Atalf looked at her and replied with a big wave of his own and a confidant grin. But he continued on without speaking, and her heart immediately sank back down to a place lower than where it started. As Atalf and Seval disappeared inside the bell tower, Anyn leaned back against the tree again.  Her shoulders drooped, and amidst the hot humid air of the woods she absently wrapped her arms around herself as if she were shivering against a sorrowful chill that was only inside her. For Atalf never seemed to notice her. Any disinterested male would have said Atalf must surely be blind, for whether she knew it or not Anyn was very much an attractive girl, being in possession of both a handsome body and gentle disposition.  But sadly, it is so often the case that that which is most pleasant and familiar is often that which is most overlooked, and what Anyn had by way of both person and personality she lacked by way of spectacle.

 

She stood there for a while, her eyes drifting back and forth between the ground at her feet and the doorway through which the object of her thoughts had disappeared.  She could have gone anywhere else, the remainder of the day was hers and there were all manner of pleasant ways with which she could occupy it. But she remained rooted where she stood, like a handmaid waiting on fate.

 

She was staring blankly at the doorway when suddenly a small miracle occured.  The door opened, and Atalf stepped out. And then, in a greater miracle still, he began to walk towards her.

A weird thing about caring for someone is that it often makes people extraordinarily timid.  As Atalf closed in on her with a casual stride Anyn found herself backing into the tree, almost wishing it would absorb her.  A few feet away, Atalf stopped and grinned.

 

“Hullo Anyn!  Fancy a walk in the woods?”

 

Anyn gulped.

 

“Hello Atalf”, she stammered.  “I’d love to.”

 

“Splendid!”, Atalf cried, “I thought you might.  Ever seen a Glimmerfly, Anyn?”

 

“No.”

 

“Well, with any luck you’ll see one today.  Gellen and I were mucking about in the west thicket yesterday, and we found fresh Glimmerfly spores all over the place.  There’s bound to be one and today we’re going to find it. It’ll be fun. Nobody’s seen a real Glimmerfly in ages, and when we bring one back we’ll be the toast of the forest.”

 

The pair of them then headed off together down the road into the forest, talking as they went.  Or rather, Atalf did most of the talking, and Anyn did most of the listening. But it was alright, Atalf had all manner of interesting stories to tell.  He talked of traps and snares, the best ways to find buried truffles, how to tell an enchanted mushroom for a poisonous one, feral pixies which looked like twigs and giant insects which looked like trees, and rumors about a white stag which had been seen somewhere in the woods.  As they walked little shafts of sunlight peeped through the treetops and bathed Anyn’s skin with a gentle warmth, much like the warmth that was now building up inside her. Listening to Atalf felt good, and his attention made her feel special. True, he probably talked that way to everybody, but somehow she couldn’t help but hope that with her it might be different.

 

It wasn’t very long before they left the forest road, taking instead a narrow Truffler’s path which led deeper into somewhat wilder parts of the woodland.  They took many twists and turns, sometimes leaving the path entirely and crossing over a small patch of undergrowth to reach another one. After a while, they came to a path which led to a small clearing.

 

Standing in the clearing was an elf man, accompanied by a medium sized dog.  The man was a bit taller that Atalf, and cut an imposing figure as he leaned on a great gleaming spear, while at his side he wore a massive Woodknife that was practically a small sword in its own right, a wicked looking object that was far more a weapon than a tool.  Anyn had never particularly liked Gellen. He was always courteous and considerate, but equally he was also cold and aloof and always seemed to be brooding about something. The exact opposite was true of his dog, Starsides. Starsides was a beautiful, lithe creature, with silvery grey coat, a body like a greyhound and a face like a slender wolf.  She was a friendly and gentle animal, and she immediately bounded up to Anyn with bright amber eyes, and tried to give her a kiss with a slobbery tongue. Anyn avoided the kiss as best she could and squatting down she began to say silly and friendly things to the silly and friendly creature as she fluffed and fondled her furry neck.

 

Up to now, Gellen had said nothing.  He merely frowned at Anyn for a moment as she played with Starsides.  Then he turned Atalf.

 

“What did you bring her out here for?”, he demanded.

 

Atalf shrugged in reply.

 

“Anyn’s never seen a Glimmerfly.  It’ll be alright, Glimmerflies arent’ dangerous….well, not especially dangerous.”

 

“It wasn’t the Glimmerfly I was thinking of.  The place we’re going to was also teaming with Unical tracks yesterday.”

 

“I’ll be alright”, Anyn said, standing up as she did so.  “I go into the woods a lot. I’m a sure I’ll be fine.”

 

“Not these parts of the woods, I’ll warrant.”

 

“It will be fine”, Atalf interjected.  “Both of us will be with her, and we’ve got the dog with us as well.  We didn’t see any Unicals at all yesterday; no doubt we shan’t see any today either.”

 

Gellen clearly wasn’t happy, but he said nothing more on the subject.  With the dog rooting around ahead, the three elves at last quit the path entirely and headed off into the woods.

 

They had been going for some time when all at once Gellen stopped abruptly, and peered into the underbrush.  Anyn crept up behind him and peeped around his body to see what he was looking at. It was a little patch of bare dirt on the ground, in which there was the impression of a fair sized cloven hoof and a fresh pile of green colored feces.  Starsides the dog took a little sniff of the noxious stuff, and then growled slightly.

 

Gellen turned to Atalf.  

 

“You and Anyn go on ahead.  Starsides and I will catch up with you later.”  

 

“Surely you don’t want to miss out on catching the Glimmerfly!” Atalf replied.

 

“If you find a Glimmerfly then don’t hesitate to catch it.  If you find anything else, be careful.”

 

With that, the elves parted ways, Gellen and Starsides remaining where they were while Atalf and Anyn pressed on ahead.

 

They had come to a particularly dark place in the wood.  The foliage was thick, and little sunlight came through, leaving the forest floor to remain in perpetual twilight.  Everywhere the trees were grown over with clinging vines and weird fungi, some of which almost appeared to glow with a light of their own.

 

Then suddenly, there it was, the Glimmerfly.

 

It was drifting on the breeze with the lightness of a jellyfish, its iridescent wings glowing with a faint blue light, while long tendrils terminating in luminous yellow orbs trailed in its wake.  At the sight of the Glimmerfly a change suddenly came over Atalf. It was though he had fallen into a trance. The girl beside him was forgotten, as were the woods and trees all around him. His eyes were fixed on the Glimmerfly, and he saw naught else.  With a soft, cat-like motion the elf plucked an arrow from his quiver and nocking it to his bowstring he took careful aim at the ethereal creature. For a moment he hesitated, watching the Glimmerfly with an unblinking eye as it floated gently on the breeze.  As Anyn watched, her heart was beating so hard that she felt it might burst.

 

Thwack!

 

In a sudden flash Atalf drew back the bowstring and released his arrow.  But the instant the missile came hurtling at it the gentle Glimmerfly abruptly twitched and rolled out of the way at the last moment, and the arrow shot past and embedded itself in a tree.  Then, beating its wings furiously the Glimmerfly shot away through the trees at a speed which seemed almost uncanny. With a curse, Atalf sprung forward and went barreling off into the woods after the Glimmerfly.

 

Anyn was startled.  She scrambled to her feet as Atalf bolted away and disappeared into the trees.  For a short while she tried to follow him. But it was no use. In a few moments, she had lost Atalf completely.

 

Worse still, she realized now that she had also lost herself.

 

Like most everyone she knew, Anyn had grown up in the forest, and she had an instinctual sense of direction.  She took a deep breath, calming down the frustration and anxiety which was beginning to well up inside her. She didn’t know this part of the woods, but she was confident she could manage to find her way back.  Atalf would just have to look out for himself.  

 

Anyn began picking her way carefully back through the gloom.  It wasn’t very long before she left the dark part of the forest behind her, and came to a place where there was a bit more sunlight.  Beneath the rays of light the foliage glowed with a warm green glow, and Anyn was sure she was on the right track.

Then suddenly, she stopped and froze in her tracks.

 

Standing in the woods just a few yards ahead of her, was a Green Unical, the horned horse.

 

It was a moderately sized creature, about half the size of an ordinary horse.  But it’s body was lean and muscled like a leopard, its fur was a deep sea green color with black spots and red-brown hair on its mane and fetlocks.  And in the center of its head was a single, slightly curved horn. The Green Unical wasn’t a true Unicorn, but was rather a slightly arcane species of the common Unical, or horned horses.  And unlike a true Unicorn, a Green Unical could not be tamed by elf maidens. They just ate them. For the Green Unical was a fearsome carnivore with an appetite for all things magical. It may very well have been stalking the Glimmerfly.  Or equally likely, it may instead have been stalking her.

 

The creature hesitated, apparently sizing Anyn up for himself to see how dangerous a prey she might be.  Anyn thought fast. Frantically she cast about herself for something, anything. There, just to one side of her was a tree with some thick lower branches.  She had no idea if she could climb it or not, but it was the best chance she had. Gingerly she began to edge herself towards the tree, not daring to take her eyes off the Unical.

 

Bur the Unical had had enough.  In a flash, the creature gathered its legs under it and bounded in her direction with a terrible snarling whinny.  

 

Anyn bolted for the tree and with an unbidden strength she hurled herself onto the nearest branch as the Unical snapped at her heels.  For the moment she was safe. She’d made it high enough that the creature couldn’t quite reach her, and as she hugged her legs close to her body just out of reach of its jaws the Unical let forth an enraged, howling neigh.

 

And then it jumped.

 

The Unical leapt up on its hind legs and bounded into the air, snapping its jaws at her legs a couple of times before landing again.  And it kept on jumping, and kept on snapping. Anyn was barely holding onto the branch. Her muscles were beginning to quiver, and it felt like they would give out at any moment and she would fall to the ground and be torn to pieces by the ravenous beast.

 

Then, from out in the forest, there came a silvery bark.

 

Bounding through the trees was Silversides the dog, barking madly as she streamed through the brush like a bolt of silver lightning.  She caught the Unical just as it was beginning to leap again, and the predator nearly tumbled over on itself as the dog came unexpected snapping at its haunches.  Then a terrible dance began. The two animals began circling one another, the Unical snarling and slavering with eldritch fury, while the dog did her best to stay just out of reach, barking frantically every moment.

 

Then suddenly, like a second bolt of lightning a long, straight wooden shaft shot out from among the trees.  With a strangled howl, the Unical staggered and swayed and then collapsed to the ground with Gellen’s spear embedded at the base of its neck.  

 

Gellen himself then stepped into view, his terrible great Woodknife brandished in his hand.  He strode over to where the Unical still lay twitching on the ground, and with one swift motion he drew the blade clear through the animal’s throat, and the Unical at last went limp.

 

Anyn felt her arms relax, and she was about to let go at last when Gellen sped to the tree, and before she knew what was happening he’d caught her up in his arms and deposited her on the ground.

 

For a moment the two of them stood there, saying nothing.  Gellen’s hands were still holding onto her hips, and Anyn felt a wave of relief and comfort wash over her as she looked into the man’s eyes.  There were a beautiful bright violet color, which was rather unusual among the elves of Essenet, and she marveld to herself that she had never quite looked the man in the eye before to have noticed them.  Or perhaps it had instead been he who had never quite looked her in the eye. Starsides had now padded over, whimpering slightly and sniffing at their legs, as if to enquire whether everyone was alright. Gellen released his grip on Anyn’s body, and then he looked away.  As he did so, it suddenly occurred to her that for all his brooding aloofness Gellen might in fact be a very shy sort of elf.

 

“I’m very sorry”, Gellen said, stammering slightly, “I should never have left you alone.  I hope you’re not hurt. This is all my fault.”

 

Anyn didn’t know what to say.  She just felt relieved, and grateful.  And she also felt that all this time she may have been overlooking something which was really very special.  And so she instead acted on what she felt, and putting her own arms around him she pressed her body against his.  Gellen had always been a kind person, even when he seemed cold. But as he quietly returned her embrace, she thought to herself that he really wasn’t cold at all.  Not in the slightest bit.

 

It was some time later, and Anyn and Gellen we walking back down the forest road, hand in hand, with Starsides padding along merrily behind.  They were talking and laughing together, and been doing so for hours. They were nearly at the turn which led back to the bell tower when they at last ran into Atalf.  

 

Atalf was cheerful and in good spirits, though looking slightly the worse for wear.  And dangling on the end of a cord tied to his belt was a dead Glimmerfly.

 

“Why, hello Anyn!”, Atalf said, “Wherever did you get off to?  You missed the whole chase, and mark my words it was truly a chase.  But it’s alright, I got got the Glimmerfly after all. It’s a pity you weren’t there to see me catch it in the end.”

 

Anyn smiled.

 

“That’s very nice, Atalf”, she replied, “But Gellen and I were just on our way to take a swim down at the stream.  I’m going to show him how to catch a crayfish!”