THE WOODCUTTER AND ELF HILL – PART 2
By Aline Boucher Kaplan
Harno sat upright, listening. A sound that he had become accustomed to, a sound that vibrated in his bones, had gone silent. He tried to remember what it was but it drifted away from his memory like the last wispy remnants of a dream.
A squirrel chattered above his head and a raven squawked as it flapped heavily away. Dawn streaked the eastern sky, lighting the familiar trees of Eythorne Wood. He sat on the bank of the stream in the center of the shallow valley. Elf Hill had gone, leaving the valley as empty as it always had been.
Brushing leaves from his hair, the woodcutter shivered in the dawn chill. Frost rimed the grass around him with delicate jewels. He felt odd, as though he had been taken out of his skin, shaken up and squeezed back in again. He couldn’t think clearly. Harno held up one hand and examined it in the pale light. It was certainly his hand, with the same blunt, callused fingers as yesterday and the old scar on the palm. He stood and looked for his axe but did not see it nearby. Worry pulled him up to search the ground nearby. How can I earn a living without my axe? He went up and down the stream bank but the axe was gone.
What do I do now? I can’t afford another axe head.
Feeling the pressure of his bladder Harno unbuttoned and relieved himself into the grass, grunting as his water steamed in the chill air.
Staggering to the brook, the woodcutter leaned over a quiet pool to splash his head with water unaccountably cold. The face looking back seemed the same, but his hair, once long enough to cover his shoulders, was cropped short and his beard was gone. Lifting one hand, Harno stroked a cheek as soft and smooth as Stefan’s bottom after the midwife bathed him. He wiped a smear of dried blood from under his nose. How can this be? Only yesterday his beard had been long and full. A thought crept into his sluggish mind, stirring it to waken.
“I have been away all night.” His voice sounded like a raven’s croak.
Yes, of course. It had been sunset when the elves came for him and now it was dawn but something was still not right. As Harno stepped away from the stream his buskins crunched in the frosted grass. He halted and looked at the valley again, panic strangling his breath. This was wrong.
It had been spring when he came upon Elf Hill. The forest had been green, each new leaf as delicate as a butterfly’s wing. Now the woods burned gold and russet. A dry leaf drifted down and settled on the ground, followed quickly by another. It was fall. Fall!
“The summer is past,” he cried aloud. He had left Luciann and the baby alone and for far too long. They would have missed him, worried about him. Worse, anything could have happened to them without his protection. Harno began to run.
Reaching the village sooner than expected, Harno found new buildings on the outskirts. Who had built them — and how could they have done it so quickly? He stepped between the structures and heard the comforting sounds of cows lowing and the creak of the well’s winch. He smelled manure from the byre, the wood smoke of breakfast fires and a drift of bannock cake fresh from the griddle. His stomach rumbled.
Harno turned a corner and stopped, disoriented once again. The river Ey flowed calmly in its familiar banks but houses had sprouted on the far shore and new fields stretched out behind them. How could Eyford have grown so large in one summer?
“Halt, there!” commanded a rough voice. “Who be you? State your business in Eyford Town.”
Harno turned to face a soldier who gripped a pike in both hands. The man spoke in an odd accent but he wore Baron Tarquin’s colors. Reassured, Harno replied simply, “I live here.”
“Here? I do not recognize your face, though it be naked for the world to see. Be you religious, a cleric?” The soldier surveyed Harno’s clothes with a frown of disapproval, for the woodcutter’s tunic looked nothing like a friar’s robe.
“No. I am the village woodcutter.”
“Huh. So you say. What be your name?”
“Harno. I live here with my wife and child.”
“I know of no woodcutter by that name. Your goodwife be called what?”
“Luciann. My wife is Luciann and my son’s name is Stefan.”
The soldier’s eyes narrowed and he tightened his grip on the pike. “Baltus!” he bellowed over his shoulder.
Another soldier stepped around the corner. “Sir?”
“Knock up Walter the Reeve. Tell him to take down his book of names.”
“Yes, sir.” The soldier jogged away toward the center of the village.
Walter? The reeve? There was a Walter, a scribe in the Baron’s household, but he was only a young man.
The soldier gestured with his pike and the woodcutter followed him reluctantly. All Harno wanted was to get to his home, to see Luciann with Stefan at her breast and find that all was well. The Eyford Village he knew was smaller than this place and it boasted no reeve; neither were soldiers garrisoned there.
“Baron, you say?” asked the soldier. “What be the name of this lord?”
Fear settled in Harno’s gut. “Baron Tarquin, of course. Why do you play games with me? I just want to go home.”
“The old lord be dead now these five years past, man. You just keep walking.”
Five years? Five years!
His mind whirling, Harno strode through stiff mud toward a new stone building tucked in beside the church. The morning air felt chill again after his run but it could not touch the deeper cold of dread that pierced him.
Baltus opened the door. Inside a man stood behind a table with his hands on a thick, leather-bound volume. He looked up as they entered and Harno searched the man’s face but found nothing familiar. Sweat shone on his face. An angry boil, so inflamed it was painful to see, grew on the reeve’s neck. At the sight of this ailment, Harno‘s head swam and he felt something like the click of a latch in his mind. Plague. The word came from nowhere. It’s already in the village. I’m too late. Harno, confused, shook these odd thoughts off. They frightened him more than ever.
“Walter, this stranger says he be named Harno, husband of Luciann. Be there any names in your book like that one?”
“It’s familiar enough,” said the reeve, licking his thumb, “although many years have passed, ah, since someone of that name lived in Eyford Town.”
Vertigo took Harno again and he felt as if he were peering into the room from far away.
Pages rustled while the reeve searched for the information he needed. “Aha,” he said, pointing one thin finger. “Here it is. Harno the woodcutter, husband of Luciann.”
“Yes!” Harno cried. “That’s me.” Knowing that he was in the book gave him strength.
Walter cocked a single eyebrow in disbelief. “It says,” he added, pointing at the page, “that Harno disappeared from Eyford Town some, ah, some fifteen years ago.” Pulling a cloth from his sleeve he wiped the sweat from his brow.
“Fifteen years!” Harno gaped at the reeve. That much time would account for the changes but surely he had been gone just overnight. It could not be true. He knew it to be a lie. Fifteen years would make him an old man yet he was still strong and vigorous.
Elf Hill. The elves had taken him and used him. They had done things . . . The woodcutter’s mind slid away from that thought. Only one night had passed there and yet he had lost fifteen years.
“My wife,” he rasped. “How is she?”
The reeve looked down at the ink marks on the page and recited the facts inscribed there, “She is dead. Ah, yes, I remember this now. After waiting five years she married the blacksmith and died in childbirth a year later along with the new babe.”
Luciann! She had been alive and happy just yesterday – today in his mind—but but here she had been dust for ten years. “And my son? Stefan is his name.”
With a sigh, Walter searched the records again. “The blacksmith, ah, took him on as apprentice.”
Harno heaved a great sigh of thanks. “Then he is well and nearby.”
The reeve shrugged. “Perhaps. The new baron has joined the Pope’s Crusade to free the Holy Land. Your boy may have been taken along to shoe the horses and such.”
Harno grasped the table’s thick edge. He barely heard Walter when the reeve added, “I will send to find your son if he is here. Now the question is, ah, what to do with you?”
The man touched his boil and the elves’ voices rose inside Harno’s head. Dark and urgent they swarmed, demanding attention. Clapping his hands over his ears as though the voices had spoken aloud, Harno held still until they slowed and he could understand what they said.
Pestilence. I must do something to stop pestilence.
The voices swirled and grew stronger, pushing at his lips to speak words that had no place in Eyford — or in his mind. Get rid of the rats and fleas, the voices said. Wash everything.
Harno shook his head, fighting a sudden memory of what the elves had done to his mind and body, deaf to his entreaties and unmoved by his pain. He did not want to remember how they had bent him to their will.
Abruptly, however, the noise cleared and he understood what the elves wanted. They had made him their voice, a person who could walk among other humans as they could not and cry the truth. Harno did not wish to do their bidding but knew he could not refuse.
Looking harder at the reeve’s neck, Harno recognized with his new clarity that the swelling was merely a boil and not a sign of early death.
The men gaped at him as if he were mad but Harno ignored them. “You must lance it,” he said, pointing at the boil. “Heat the blade until it is red. Afterward wash the skin with soap and water hot as you can bear.” As he spoke, blood began to drip from his nose.
The reeve stepped back from the table, eyes wide. “That is foolishness,” he said.
“If you do not, if you ignore it, the canker will fester. Evil bodies called germs will grow and multiply until their poison kills you.”
The reeve stared at him with bulging eyes but said nothing. The soldier crossed himself. For a long moment, the room was silent.
Harno continued, the words spilling from his mouth like water from a jug. He could not stop the flow even as it pushed the men away from him.
“Plague is coming but you can keep the village safe if you try. Stop all travelers from entering or having contact from anyone in Eyford. Kill all the rats. Sweep up old rushes and burn them.” Harno put a hand over his mouth but the words pushed past it. “Everyone must bathe and wash their hair and clothing. Keep fleas away. It’s the fleas!”
As soon as the words were out, the clamor in his head quieted.
Baltus put a hand on his sword hilt while the reeve waved at Harno and shouted, “He’s possessed! The devil rides this man. Get him away from me!”
Turning, Harno bolted from the room.
Days later Harno sat on the well’s rim, leaning on the haft of his old axe, returned by Stefan when he met the stranger who claimed to be his father. Harno had answered everyone’s questions as truthfully as he might, though they clearly thought him touched. No one listened. They mocked him and called him mad while a great death drew ever closer.
The priest who had replaced Father Brevart eyed him with deep suspicion and told him to repent his lies. Maurin the Hag, who would have understood, was long dead. Only the cows in the byre where he slept did not care that he had come out of Elf Hill still young and hale, with whole white teeth and cheeks that needed no razor.
Harno’s memory of his time there had slipped away like a dream upon waking, He spoke the elves’ words when needed but now his nose seldom bled. Still, the knowledge persisted that a great and awful thing was drawing closer.
Goodwife Hulse approached the well on wary feet and Harno smiled at her to show his goodwill. Goody Hulse nodded back and set her bucket on the stone beside him, saying politely, “Good day to you.”
“Let me pull that,” he offered. “The water is heavy and you have a day’s work ahead.”
Cautiously she stepped back and let him fill her bucket. In the early spring warmth he could smell Goodwife Hulse’s grimy clothing and sour sweat along with the ordinary village scents of woodsmoke, slops and manure. Eyford Town was crowded and dirty. As the dripping pail rose, he felt the now-familiar pressure build within him. The elves’ voices whispered and their words flowed as he filled her pail. “Boil that before you drink; the river is high.”
“So you have said before.”
“It is tainted by slops and middens. Tainted water brings the bloody flux.”
“Stop it Father,” said his son’s voice.
Goody Hulse looked up at Stefan’s angry approach and hurried away, lugging her heavy bucket. A flea bit him and Harno scratched; he was no cleaner than the rest despite his knowledge. Although he had no fear of the plague, or of death, the filth bothered him because the elves had taught better. He regarded the son who looked older than he did himself. Harno had told Stefan all he knew but the explanation did no more good with his son than with the others.
“I can’t,” he said.
“You must stop preaching at the people. They think you touched.”
Harno smiled grimly. “I am touched. The elves left their mark.”
”It will do the townsfolk no good and make you miserable.”
“You should go,” Stefan said and his voice was hard. “You only hurt yourself — and others — by staying here.”
Stung, Harno turned and walked into the town square, his son following at his heels. The cobbles were crowded with market-day carts and the wagons of traveling merchants. The farmers looked askance at the big, clean-faced man bearing an axe. A man who had been taken into Elf Hill might do anything.
His stomach rumbled and he approached the pie stand with money earned from the firewood he cut. The owner offered him one of her savories. Thick gravy puddled on the brown crust but flies buzzed away as she lifted the pastry and settled quickly on the other pies.
“Flies carry germs,” he said, gesturing at the animal turds and stinking gutters around her stall, “and germs bring infection.”
The baker stepped back and crossed her heavy arms. “You’ll find no sickness on my pies,” she declared. “Flies are everywhere. What’s to be done about them? If you look for food that no fly has touched, you’ll starve.”
It was true. Purchasing his breakfast, Harno brushed off the top and took a bite. It was delicious and he made it last as he walked through the market.
“I will try,” he promised Stefan. “I will bide my peace and leave the townspeople alone,”
“That would be a good thing, old man.”
The cooper crossed his path, burly as one of his barrels and filthy as the mud in which he walked. Harno tried to hold the words in but the Elf King’s compulsion proved too strong.
“Shouldn’t mix food and filth,” he muttered
“Eh, what’s that?” the cooper called. “What are you talking about now?”
“Bathe,” he said. The people around them stopped to listen, ready for a morning’s entertainment. “Clean bodies and clean clothing harbor no fleas. Plague comes with fleas.” The idea still sounded odd although he had said it often enough. He wiped blood from under his nose.
“Clean? I’ll stay clean, alright.” The cooper responded, playing to the crowd. “If you chop the wood and haul the water and heat it and pour it in my bath and carry it out when I’m done. Haw haw.”
“Bathe,” scoffed the miller’s wife. “It’s washing that’s unhealthy. Opens you up to bad vapors and them’ll kill you, sure.”
The crowd laughed but their mirth held a sharp edge.
“I’m trying to help,” Harno protested.
“We know,” taunted the ostler’s lad. “T’elves told you how to make us strong and healthy. But why should t’elves help us? T’ey are no friends of ours.”
“They want you to live.”
The wool merchant shook his fist. “Want to bewitch us, more like.”
“Then they can steal our souls,” added the cooper, “like they took yours.”
One of the traveling merchants turned to watch the amusement and Harno saw him sweating although the day was cool. The man moved slowly and held his left arm away from his body at an awkward angle. Ignoring his tormentors, Harno approached the merchant and stared into his glassy eyes.
“Good morrow, sir. Are you well?” he asked.
Stefan tugged at his sleeve, pulling him away. “Leave him alone!”
The merchant shook his head and tried to speak but instead vomited dark fluid onto the cobbles. As if the act had taken all his strength, the man’s eyes rolled up and he began to fall. Harno caught him and leaned the merchant against a wall. “This man is sick,” he proclaimed to a crowd now silent. “He has the pestilence I have warned about. He must be kept away from the village. Do not touch him or his things.”
The people, frightened now, drew back in a silent ring, Stefan among them. Despite Harno’s familiar strangeness, plague was real. Now that it had appeared, leering at them through the merchant’s pale face, they were frightened.
“What will you do with him?” It was Walter. “We want no pestilence here.” The reeve rubbed his scarred neck: at least one man had followed Harno’s advice.
Do? Harno gripped his axe and thought quickly. He had not planned to do anything with the sick man but the merchant could not lie in the street. The only place that could heal him was Elf Hill and it was gone. “I can take him to the byre,” he said. “It’s far enough from the houses. No one should come there. No one must touch him.”
“No!” Stefan said. “You may not bring him to my barn or anywhere near my house. I have put up with your foolishness because I am a good Christian and you say I am your son but this must stop. Go away, Harno. Take him and go far away from me and my family.”
Harno stared at Stefan sadly. Could his son really cast him out?
“And never come back.”
Harno saw Father Ennis pushing through the crowd and turned to him for help. Surely a man of God would understand the need to succor the sick. Father Ennis’s mind was focused on saving his parishioners, however.
“Enough of your heathen ways,” he said. “You are not the Prophet Amos. The Good Lord has not compelled you to roam the land preaching our destruction.” Turning to the crowd, he mocked, “The lion has roared — who will not fear? The Sovereign Lord has spoken — who can but prophesy?”
The people laughed but Harno remained silent.
The priest continued, his voice a dark threat. “Prophets of the Lord aged like other men. You remain young because you have consorted with elves and demons. Now you and your evil companions have drawn plague to this village.”
“Drawn it? No! I have tried to warn you. Over and over I have tried to keep it away.”
The priest talked over him. “You spoke of plague so often it came to you like flies to manure.”
“People will die of plague. But there is no need. We can change it.”
“We need no change here, except for you to leave. Stefan is right. Go away now and let us live in peace.”
“I have to care for this man,” Harno insisted. As he spoke, however, the merchant convulsed and shuddered, jerking so that his head thudded against the wooden wall. He exhaled one long breath and went limp. The open eyes stared at Harno as if in disbelief.
“So fast,” Harno murmured. “I did not know it could kill so fast.”
“Murderer!” shouted the baker. “Begone wi’ ye.”
“You brought t’elves’ curse of sickness,” said the ostler’s lad. “Brought it here to kill us, like.”
Harno turned in a circle, seeking someone who would help him but saw only angry faces and threatening hands.
“You should have stayed with the elves,” Father Ennis continued. “There is no place for you here. You must leave.”
“But Eyford is my home,” Harno protested.
“Once it was, but no longer. Go and take your heathen bewitchments with you.”
The crowd began to shout and someone shoved him from behind. They were turning into a mob, more dangerous than a pack of wolves. A hand reached out to snatch the haft of his axe but he raised it high out of reach. Seeing his gesture as a threat, the crowd’s rumble deepened. The priest was right. Stefan was right. He must leave.
Harno stepped forward and the crowd opened just enough to give him room. A rotten turnip flew past his head with a fresh curse behind it. He ignored both and kept walking. Emboldened, people flung dirt and manure, even rocks. Harno forged his way down the street, pushed by the townspeople’s fury. A stone struck him on the shoulder, and he stumbled. Angry, he turned and brandished his axe, roaring in their faces. The mob stopped, making a semicircle in the road, but continued to jeer. They used his own words against him.
“Wash your hands, idiot!”
“Boil the water, fool.”
“Kill the rats.”
“Put the pigs outside.”
The priest stepped forward and called, “Elf spawn. Take your tiny demons and evil spells away from Eyford Town. Such fairy talk is not wanted by god-fearing people. In the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, go back to the elves who stole your soul.”
“They only wanted to help.”
The crowd answered with a roar of fury. Harno shouldered his axe and turned off the road into the woods. In ten steps the trees sheltered him from the taunts of those few children daring enough to follow. Ten more and he was alone.
Angry, Harno strode ahead. Wiping mud from his lip, he found blood mixed in. He stared at it and knew where he must go. Taking his bearings in the familiar wood, he found that the little valley lay eastward, to his right. Harno set off at a steady trot.
Once again spring flowers brightened the ground and birds sang their mating songs but Harno saw and heard nothing. He would return to the elves somehow, although they had brought him only pain. He had served their needs and now that the village had driven him away, he had no home.
The valley where Elf Hill had rested so many years ago dozed in the afternoon sun. Harno went to the brook and washed his face, finishing with a long drink of water, still winter-cold and clear. Walking to the edge of the woods, he sat cross-legged with his back against a tree and his axe across his knees to wait. They would come in their own time.
He woke at twilight as Elf Hill approached.
Harno marveled that it descended from the heavens instead of rising out of the earth as old Maurin’s stories had said. It made sense that a dwelling so full of light would come from the sky and he understood for the first time that it was really a vessel and not a mound at all. The ship settled in the gathering shadows, its passage stirring the new leaves and its light holding the night at bay.
When he was halfway to Elf Hill, the ground rumbled beneath his feet and the black door slid open. One by one the Little People emerged.
This time they did not bother with the false glamour of phantom robes and spectral jewels. The elves appeared as they had inside the hill and Harno trembled at their terrible otherness. Their skins were the bluish gray of a two-day corpse, their heads overlarge for slender torsos and spindly limbs. Enormous eyes glittered flat and black, slanting upward above the slits that served for nose and mouth. The elves’ only beauty lay in the grace with which they moved.
At the memory of the Elf King’s cruel devices and implacable demands, Harno’s mouth grew dry. Part of him wanted to turn and run. Still, though, he did not flinch. Harno went to one knee as the Elf King came to meet him.
“Have you done as we asked?” the creature inquired. His small mouth never moved.
“They won’t listen, Great One” Harno said. “I tried. I said what you told me to say. I told them many times but they only laughed and called me fool.”
The black eyes blinked once, slowly, and a reply formed inside Harno’s head. “Did you explain?”
“Yes, always. And I used the words you gave me, Great One, but the townspeople did not believe me. When the plague finally came, they drove me away.”
“Why would they not listen?”
Harno thought about that. “Change is hard,” he explained finally. “They know how to live as they always have. That is sufficient for them and they would rather not do things differently.”
“Even if it means living longer, living better?”
Harno nodded sadly. “Even so. It is more comfortable to go on as they always have, to believe that change is not necessary.”
The big head tipped as the Elf King thought and dark blood pulsed beneath his gray skin.
“You must try again.”
Harno shook his head. “The priest has cast me out and I cannot go back.”
“Your work is not yet done,” the Elf King said. “The plague will kill many unless someone listens.”
Harno saw one of the Elf King’s vivid pictures in his head. This one was of Eyford market, lit by the glow of burning houses while dogs fed on corpses in the street.
“This will happen not only here but everywhere,” said the Elf King.
“Why do you make me do this, Great One?”
The Elf King tipped his big head slightly to one side as he considered the question. “It is a test,” he said finally.
“For everyone. We created this plague to see if fear of death was sufficient to change people’s behavior. The disease vectors live all around them and they can survive by simply eliminating them.”
Feeling the weight of his true years, of loss and pain and rejection, Harno thought that he could not go on. Although he shuddered with fear of re-entering the ship, he wanted to walk through the black door and be done with his awful mission. The elves had touched him and a second part of him yearned to see again the wonder in which they lived.
“You have taken everything from me,” he protested, shaking his head. It felt so heavy he could barely lift it. “You took my home, my family. You owe me a place to live.”
The Elf King, who understood as little of mercy as he did of pain, was unmoved. “You must continue your work.”
Harno sighed. They had taken his home in this world but would not let him back into theirs. He wanted to weep in despair and laugh with wild relief at the same time.
“How? What should I do?”
“Speak your words in the next town and then the village after that. Keep going until you find people who want to learn how to live better. Some must wish to grow to become more than they are now and will understand that a desire for comfort cannot help them.”
“It may take a long time. I will be a stranger.”
“You will have as long as you need.”
Harno sighed. “The priest said I was not a prophet of the Lord but he was wrong. If I am to walk the highways and tell men what they do not want to hear, then I am a prophet indeed. From now on, I will call myself Amos, so that all will know what I am.”
The Elf King tipped his head slightly. Names mattered not at all to him.
Gripping his axe tightly, Harno thought again about destroying the Elf King but the axe never moved. He turned from Elf Hill; cast out of that bright place it as he had been from his village. He was weary but he would do as the Elf King commanded, knowing that no one would listen to a prophet who told them what they did not wish to hear.
Shouldering his axe, the new prophet Amos walked away from Elf Hill into a forest as dark and lonely as his heart.