Talla's Tale (Part One)
Talla Bobbs slurped his tea. His elfish face went into a scowl. "Is it possible to get more honey? I always like to have my second cup sweeter. It gives me something to look forward to."
Silvie turned to Fender Apple, her other guest. "Is there anything that I can get you?" she asked. She did not know anything about the elf but felt that she had to make sure that he was not left wanting.
Fender's voice was barely audible. "I'm fine," he murmured.
Silvie obliged her guest and went into the kitchen. She was so anxious to hear Talla's story that she failed to notice that her very young son Ho had crept into the sitting room and was hiding behind a portico blind. Little Ho was a curious imp who liked to listen to the adult elves' conversation. He didn't recognize the two visitors but by their greying heads he knew that whatever they said would be very interesting. He sat as quiet as the mouse next to him. He was not going to reveal his presence and be sent off to his room for snooping.
A moment later, Silvie returned with a jar of honey. Talla Bobbs dipped his spoon into the jar and then stirred the sticky gold into his tea.
He slurped at his cup. "Ah! That is much better," he sighed and noticed that Silvie and her husband Merek were staring at him with the deepest of attention. "Oh yes, I was going to tell you about the time Hick and I went to Portugal." He took another big slurp from his tea. Some of it dribbled down his chin. Doing nothing to wipe it away, he cleared his throat and began his tale while his two of his adult listeners settled in their seats getting themselves comfortable. The third, Fender, appeared that he just as soon fall asleep than listen. This was not so with the hidden child Ho who hoped that his young body would not nag him into betrayal. He wanted to hear Talla's tale.
"We started in Ciudad Rodrigo, a small Spanish town that was at the foothills of the Sierra de Gata mountain range. We had little cash left from our previous adventure. I was of the mind to return to Vienna. I love that city and its music. An elf can do well in Vienna because everybody loves magic there. But Hickory had different notions. He always wanted to see the ocean from a Portuguese shore. Why such a thing would enter an elf's mind, I don't know, but Hickory Robinbreast was possessed with this silly notion.
"We argued for two days about where to go, Portugal or Vienna. I told Hick if he was so dead set to go to Portugal he should go on his own. I wasn't going to stop him but he insisted and in fact pleaded that I should accompany him. In the end, I agreed to go on a shortened excursion as long as we could spend a fortnight in Vienna afterwards. Hickory accepted this although I believed that when the time came to leave Portugal some other fanciful notion would creep into his head and make him want to go elsewhere other than lovely Vienna.
"As I said, we had very little by the way of means between the two of us. And this little bit of capital that we did have, Hickory had pigeonholed for the purchase of a small rowboat. He wanted to travel by river into Portugal rather than walk over the rugged land. This made sense to me since we could always unload the boat in Portugal and get back just about as much as we paid for it."
Talla Bobbs chuckled to himself. "Soon I was to learn how wrong I was. Hickory Robinbreast might have had exceptional talents in many a field but he sure was one lousy boatsman. He did not even know in which direction to stroke the oar. We must have been quite a sight for I was little better than Hick. Our little boat never moved smoothly through waters that I must say were quite gentle. The front end swung completely around and before we knew it we were travelling backwards and then sideways. The meager current had us at its feeble little will. I dare say that even a child with the most rudimentary knowledge of oars would have fared better than Hick and I.
"Even though we were unsteady and clumsy, we still were making progress down the river. For an idle boat will float to where the water takes it. Somewhere along this bungling trek we crossed over the border that separates Spain from Portugal. Where it was, we did not know.
"Somewhere along the way the river started to pick up its pace and began to churl and froth. Our boat pitched and rocked. Water sprayed over the edges. Hickory and I were soaked to the skin. We tried to row to shore but the one oarsman did not know what the other one was doing. Our efforts were going against ourselves for we stayed in the middle of that turbulent river.
"Soon so much water had washed into the rowboat that we had to forsake our oars so that we could strive to bail our vessel before it capsized. The only scoops that we had were our own caps. More water rinsed through them than we were able to jetison.
"We were appalled for we were fighting a losing battle. The boat was just not emptying. Then we struck a rock. Our necks were jarred and then we struck another one. We were in the midst of a treacherous rock-strewn rapids. Our little wooden boat rattled off one boulder into another.
"The hull's frame was being torn asunder. Splinters of wood cracked into the air. Everything was agush. The boat was beyond rescue. If we were to survive we had to abandon ship.
"This we did none too soon for just as we sprung into the churning river, the boat smashed headlong into a massive brute of a black rock that looked eager to chew up anything that the river fed it. Our investment was demolished. What little financial resources we had were floating away in the form of bits of wood dancing wildly upon a fiendish water.
"Not that we noticed, of course. For we had something far more precious to tend to at that moment - our lives! We were being pushed along in that mad water that did not care about the tenderness of knee, elbow or body being jarred against sharp-edged river rocks. Neither Hick nor myself were much at swimming. The riverbanks we could see but we just could not get to them. The water would not allow us. We were taking our bumps and grinds swallowing the icy water by the gallon. I did not think that we would make it and then, in the distance, I saw that the river was coming to an abrupt end.
"Or so it seemed. For I could not see anything beyond a certain point. Hickory cried out to me, 'Talla, that's a waterfall ahead of us! It might drop a whole lot. If it drops a lot, I reckon I might as well say my farewell to you for even an elf's charm has no power against a mighty waterfall.'
"I was never so frightened in all my days. I thought that I was for certain on the last page of the final chapter of my life. I swam wildly, I swam franticly but the river just pushed me along like a mother does her impish tot. The waterfall was upon us now.
"There were not even any trees or broken branches hanging over the waterfall that might give us one last desperate chance. I remember seeing Hickory with his eyes shut in fervent prayer. I started to pray as well for our hour was at hand. The water forced us to do its will.
"We spilled over the abyss. I was wild with terror. My lungs ached from all the water that I had swalled and from all of my screaming.
"Down we fell, tumbling with the thrushing water. Way down below us I saw a bevy of hungry rocks waiting to chew us up."
Talla Bobbs paused here for a moment to wipe the sweat from his brow. In the retelling of his tale he was reliving it as much as if he were experiencing it for the first time. Merek and Silvie were also in quite a fright. Uncle Hickory had never told them about this part of his Portuguese adventure. Ho was trembling in his hiding spot wishing that he had stayed in bed. His dreams were never as bad as this. The only one that was unmoved was Fender Apple. He was just sitting back in the sofa and was probably not even paying attention to what his partner was saying.
Talla Bobbs put the handkerchief back into his pocket. "One never feels so hopeless as when one is falling. Only a bird can beat gravity. We elves can do many a migical thing but we cannot fly. So as far as I was concerned, Hick and I were plunging to our deaths.
"Now, sometimes things happen that can only be described as unexpected. They come from quarters that no one regards. But when they happen, they have a way of changing everything. Your expectations are altered radically when the unexpected occurs.
"Such an unexpected event took place that day when Hickory and I were hurtled over the edge of the waterfall. Such an event would have to have occured because if it didn't, I wouldn't be here telling you about it." Talla Bobbs finished his tea and placed his thick hands onto his pudgy belly. He was the picture of contentment.
"Will you get on with the story, Bobbs! Don't forget that we have come here for another matter - not for you to recount your misadventures!" Fender Apple said bitterly.
"Ah you, Mr. Apple!" Talla Bobbs sneered. "Everything for you is haste, haste, haste. You wouldn't know pleasure even if it were sitting upon your dinner plate."
Merek looked disdainfully at Fender Apple. He did not like that chap. There was something not right about him. But Merek quickly turned his eyes away for Fender Apple was still staring at him or maybe it would be better to say, staring through him. The elf made him nervous. "So what was this unexpected thing, Mr. Bobbs?" he asked feeling uncomfortable for he knew that Fender Apple's eyes had not veered away from him.
"The unexpected?" Talla said. It seemed that Merek's question had shaken him awake. "Ah, yes, the unexpected.
"It seems that living in those mountains is a creature so fantastic that few have ever even heard of it and even fewer that believe in it. It looks like an eagle, or better, a harpy for it is much larger than any other bird that lives upon an aerie. It is as big as a man. It looks like an eagle but its most salient feature would have to be its curiosity. It wants to know all. It has an insatiable appetite for learning. This has made it very wise. Because of this it may be more akin to the owl than the eagle. It is wise because it asks questions and that is indeed what it is called, it is known as the Questionner.
"At the time Hickory and I were falling, it so happened that the Questionner was sailing on the high winds above the Sierra de Gata Mountains. It must have seen us and our predicament. It swooshed down through the air and threaded the very waterfall. It caught us with its great talons by the napes of our elfin tunics.
"The next thing Hickory and I knew, we were high aloft. Everything happened so fast that neither of us could form any impressions. Had we been sensible we would have been wild with fear for were we not in the clutches of the biggest bird of prey that either of us had ever seen or imagined? Luckily, we were insensible.
"An instant later we lit upon a clearing at the river's edge. We both grasped the soil, gasping and coughing for our lungs were still riddled with water from our ordeal with the river.
"For several minutes we spat out the water that had tried to kill us. Slowly we recovered, regaining our senses and our composure. It is unsettling to be at death's door and then not to be invited in. But once we had revived, we each saw something that made us frantic and wish that we had gone through that door.
"The Questionner was perched on a thick limb of an overhanging raintree that was nearby. It stared at us with unblinking eyes that made us shiver. Perhaps even more than the wing of an eagle or its razor-edged beak, it is these cold, angry eyes that implants the fear and awe into a man's heart. For those eyes, so malevolent, seem to know everything and this knowledge gives it scorn towards any that know less.
"Hickory and I scampered toward the river. We preferred to be tested by the churly waters rather than be picked to the bone by such an awesome adversary.
"'Where you be going, little elves?' the bird rasped. Its voice was harsh and scratchy like the cry of its diminuitive cousin, the eagle.
"Both Hick and I were thunderstruck. In our wildest recollection we had never encountered any creature that could talk.
"'I don't want to be plucking you out of the river again,' the harpy said. 'My feathers are still soaked and sore from the first time.'
"Hickory and I stopped just shy of the river's edge. We turned our heads and looked timidly at the bird. Both of us realized that the harpy had indeed saved us from the waterfall.
"'You're not going to eat us, are you?' I asked with trepidation for those eyes were piercing me as if I was being stabbed by something vile and hideous.
"'Why should I want to eat you? There are better things in the mountains to eat other than the two of you.' it said as if it meant that we were like green stompe to a child.
"'Then why are you watching us?' Hickory said bravely.
"'I have never met elves before.' it replied. "I've heard of them and often taken them to be nothing more than a fanciful notion from those that cannot accept the world as it is. Yet, here I am, looking at two fine samples of elfdom. And do you know what my impression is?'
"It said this with contempt so both Hickory and I were prepared for something degrading if not insulting.
"It said, 'Elves don't know how to say thank you.'
"I was humiliated. I was brought up as Hickory was brought up as I am sure that the two of you have been brought up. All elves are brought up to be polite. That harpy had gone out of its way and probably endangered itself to save our lives and we had not even thanked him for it. I was ashamed and by judging by the eleven and a half shades of red upon Hickory's face, Hick was ashamed also.
"'Do not judge elves by the like of us.' Hickory said. 'We are a very polite people. I don't know what got into Talla and myself but let me now say thank you ever so much. And let me apologize to you sincerely for our rudeness. It was uncalled for and very unelflike. I am sorry. Are you sorry Talla?'
"'Yes, yes.' I replied. 'I am sorry that we did not say thank you for if ever there was a time to say thank you this is it.'
"'There are stories about elves and little people all over the world yet I always believed that they were just merely that, stories. Now I see with my own eyes that you are real.' the great bird said.
"'If we weren't real then we would not have been in danger with the waterfall, now would we?' Hickory said. Your Uncle Hick was always a jokester, a trickster.
"The bird laughed. 'Sometimes danger is unimaginable.' it said. 'Yet when it is there, there is nothing more real than danger.'
"I nodded. 'The only thing about danger is that everybody want to get out of it.'
"Not necessarily,' Hickory said to my chagrin. 'I seek it. I relish it. I mustard it.'
"'Then you are not as wise as I supposed the elf folk to be,' the harpy commented.
"Hickory was nonplussed by this remark. You could see it in his face. He was going to do something. Then he did. He showed that there was some truth to his contention that he sought danger. Also he showed that there was truth in the harpy's statement about the wisdom of elves. Now, you must remember how large and how feral this harpy appeared. If it wanted to, it could have shredded the two of us into unrecognizable forms. This did not even dawn upon Hickory. When his pride was daunted, nothing could stop him in his attempt to seek revenge, to get even.
"He picked up a nearby piece of wood that was washed up by the river. He flung this wood as hard as he could at the harpy.
"The stick smacked the bird against its great black shoulder. I was so terrified that I couldn't move no matter how hard I tried. If that bird had the same temperment as Hickory then I daresay we would have been better off tumbling down that waterfall.
"But luckily for us the harpy was not endowed with a quick temper. Perhaps it learned to subdue angry tides within itself through all the wisdom that it acquired through asking questions. And that was how it handled this little affair. It asked questions. A lot of questions. Afterall, its name was the Questionner.
"It asked Hickory why he had thrown the stick.
"'Because you made me angry.' Hickory replied.
"'Because you hurt my pride.'
"'By calling me stupid.'
"'Does calling you stupid hurt your pride?'
"'Yes. It suggests that you think of me as a lower being.'
"'Did you ever think that by being stupid you have far more potential than anybody who has the pretentiousness of calling himself wise?'
"Hickory did not answer this question. The Questionner gave him another question. 'Who in your opinion is the more stupid, the stupid man who knows that he is stupid or the stupid man that does not know that he is stupid?'
"Your Uncle Hickory had a difficult time answering that one. I must admit that I had a hard time with it as well. But once again the Questionner did not wait for a reply. 'Which one of the two do you think you most resemble?' it asked.
"'I guess the one that is stupid and doesn't know it.' Hickory answered. I was surprised at Hick's reply. I would never have believed that he would have swallowed his pride. But then the old Hick came back with his next remark. 'But I would rather be stupid and not know it rather than have to admit to myself that I was stupid. For once you admit to something you become that something. I, for one, would rather rest on an unsure foot than no foot at all.'
"It was a wonderful reply that even caught the Questionner off guard. 'From unsurety you gain surety,' it said.
"'Yeah!' Hickory went on. 'Once you start reaching higher you start to make sure that what you are resting on is stable. If you don't reach, you don't care what you're resting on because it's not going to collapse underneath you and you remain exactly where you are.'
"By these masterful strokes, Hickory had gained the fondness of the harpy. 'Perhaps I was mistaken,' the Questionner said. 'Perhaps there is truth in the wisdom of the little folk.'
"Hickory and the Questionner became friends. They talked for the better part of an hour. It was mostly Hickory answering questions about the nature of elves, where we came from, what we eat, and other inquiries of that sort.
"I, for my part, became quite restless because everything that was being spoken was old hash to me. I wanted to ask the Questionner questions concerning itself. But I could not get a word in edgewise. No sooner had Hickory answered one question then the harpy would ask him another. After a while, I just sat myself beside the river and watched the water flow by. I might have even fallen asleep, for all I know.
"Finally it seemed that even Hickory and the harpy were growing weary of all the questions. I was aroused by hearing Hick say that he and his partner had to get moving on. He mentioned his goal of reaching the Portuguese shore so that he may throw a few stones out into the ocean.
"'That's a strange quest,' the Questionner remarked.
"'We are an eccentric people that take pleasure in forms not considered by other cultures,' Hickory answered.
"'I have some stones which I wish to be thrown into the ocean.' the harpy said. 'I would be greatly in your debt if you were to throw them in for me.'
"'I would be honoured to bestow a favour upon the great Questionner.' Hickory replied.
"'Promise me that you will carry out this deed,' the harpy was solemn.
"'I will. Consider me duty-bound.' Hickory was equally as sincere.
"You may have noticed that from time to time you will see a bird digest little stones and gravel. It is said that it aids them in breaking down the food in their stomach. So it was with the harpy. It needed gravel in its tummy too.
"What happened next is something that is not normally spoken in friendly company, but as this tale goes, it is crucial to its continuity. The Questionner started to clear its throat and then a pulsating rhythm was set forth through its ebony breast. It was regurgitating. Out from its beak came a dozen stones that dazzled the eyes once the sunlight was reflected upon them. They were large, sharp green stones that shone with a light that must have come from within them. I know an emerald when I see one and that was precisely what I was seeing. What the Questionner had brought up from his entrails were emeralds of a quality unsurpassed.
"'Take these stones and cast them into the great Atlantic Ocean for me,' the harpy said. 'Please do not fail at this mission for there is far more at stake than you realize.'
"At that moment, I thought that I heard a rustle in the bushes on the other side of the river. I looked across but I could not see anything. Little did I know that there was a servant spy of the Baron of Castelo Branco hidden on the opposite bank who had been watching our entire encounter with the Questionner.
"Hickory vowed to the harpy that he would cast the emeralds into the sea. We then bid our farewells to this mythical bird. Hickory placed the stones into a leather pouch that he carried inside of his jerkin. The Questionner flew away and soon was only just a mere speck in the skies over the Sierra de Gata Mountains.
"'Come Talla! Let's be off!' Hickory cried with a strange jubilation in his eyes. I was starting not to understand my traveling companion.
"'As long as we go by foot.' I tersely replied. I had sworn to myself that I would never set foot into a boat again.
"'Agreed!' Hickory jauntily nodded. Perhaps he had made the same pledge to himself.
"Once again I heard the rustle in the bushes from across the river. This time I caught a glimpse of a tall, thin man dressed in a jerkin that matched the green foliage that abounded in this part of the land. He was running deeper into the forest away from us.
"I made little of it at the time for it seemed that it should be no concern of ours as to what this man was doing. That was a big mistake as you will soon find out.
"In the meanwhile, Hickory and I had found an old dirt road that was more affable to traverse than the rough, tangling foliage that we had been traipsing across thus far. The day was on the wane and evening was approaching rapidly. We would have to make camp soon we decided. We started to look for an appropriate site along the roadside. It didn't even occur to us that we should be trying to conceal ourselves.
"Finally we came across a charming little site that others must have used in the past for there was even a small firepit there. Beside it, there was a knotted bundle of faggots. 'The Portuguese are hospitable to their roadside travelers,' I innocently remarked.
"Hickory concurred and asked me if I would be so kind as to start a fire. He was just going off into the nearby bush to have a look around. This was the way it always was with Hickory Robinbreast. I had done some traveling with him before and had grown accustomed to the fact that whenever there was any work to be done, old Hick would somehow or another have something more pressing to do. At times in the past, I had quarrelled with him over his laziness but on this evening the notion of starting a fire did not bother me in the least. In fact, I gain pleasure out of doing some of these mundane chores.
"The licks of flame were just getting to be a foot high when Hickory had returned. 'Would you like some tea?' I asked him.
"'Tea? Where did you find some tea? I thought that we had lost all of our supplies over the waterfall.' he commented. His voice did not seem to be too excited about the prospect of sipping a warm, mysterious beverage.
"I told him that it wasn't exactly tea in the pot over the fire. It was a herb that I discovered at the south base of many a tree in the vicinity.
"'You are making moss tea?' he cried disconcertingly.
"I was about to explain to him that if it is brewed right a moss tea is quite a tasty drink. But I didn't have a chance to say this. For suddenly from around the corner, eight soldiers appeared. They were dressed in bright red uniforms with golden epaulets and buttons. Each was armed with a thin, short sword that they carried openly in their hands.
"Hickory and I were taken by surprise or at least I was. It even failed to connect in my head that that man that I had previously seen running across the other side of the riverbank had something to do with this.
"'What may I ask is our offence?' Hickory asked without betraying any fear that he might have been experiencing.
"The soldiers did not answer. I surmised that they could only speak Portuguese. Hick had not asked his question in Portuguese.
"But I was a master of tongues. Portuguese is only one of many languages that I speak proficiently. I asked the soldiers if we were being arrested for trespassing or vagrancy. I got no reply from them at all, unless you are willing to say that a blade can speak. For these soldiers started pricking their swords into our bodies. And by this method, they pushed us along. We were forced to abondon our quaint roadside campsite with its nice little fire and its tasty moss tea. I was concerned about that fire. I didn't want it to spread. But the soldiers did not afford me the time to dowse the flames. I never did learn if whether that fire had grown rampant or if it came to a quiet end with the moss tea growing gradually cool and bitter.
"The soldiers marched us along the very road that we had come along. It was dark and I could hardly see anything. The gnats were very bad, sluicing bits of me and Hickory and the soldiers as well. I was very frightened because I didn't know what was to become of us. We walked all night long along a road that weaved through creepy copses and sheer cliff edges. Where were they taking us, I wondered. What was our offence? There was no war concerning the Portuguese at this time. They could not have considered us as spies, could they? Even at peace, men are filled with intrigue and do not trust strangers.
"The skies were beginning to lighten when I beheld a vast keep along the face of a mountain. It was a massive Moorish castle that looked as old as the cliff it was built upon. Indeed some of it was dug right into the cliff. A dreary, gray cliff and castle it was. As dreary as the weather is today and indeed as dreary as that day had become for a thick drizzle had begun just before dawn.
"The soldiers led us to this foreboding keep. By their manner I was able to discern that even they approached the castle with a degree of dread. Yet, they were trained soldiers and because of this, they had learned how to deal with their fear. They never dickered. Without a halt, they marched us into the very maw of the bastion.
"The inside of the castle was as dark and gloomy as it was from the outside. There was a damp coolness in there that chilled me to the bones. All about us were towering walls that bore only macabre tapestries of gruelling battle scenes. The master of this castle must relish war I thought.
"Coming to meet our incoming party was a beastly man that seemed more bear than human. He wore long flowing dark robes that matched the burliness of his girth and his black beard. The soldiers came to a halt at his signal. He addressed the men about the importance of making haste. They were expected two hours earlier. What had kept them? One of the soldiers was about to explain when the big man snapped his finger. From the corridors came a group of guards, each as big and as bullyish as the man in the black robe. They led the soldiers away. Later, I was to learn that these men who had taken us from our campsite were sent to the stockade where they were tortured for being in the big man's words, slovenly in their soldierly conduct.
"That left just Hickory and I with this big man. He regarded us carefully and seemed to be amused by our slight, elfish stature. The word 'shrimp' was uttered more than once as he mumbled to himself.
"Hickory was indignant. He did not need to be treated so rudely. He slashed out a flurry of insulting words that luckily the big man did not understand. If he did, I daresay, we might have been cut down right there on the spot.
"'What manner of people be you?' the big man asked, staring at us with his dark malevolent eyes. His question was asked in Portuguese so naturally Hickory could not understand. But I did, being master of many tongues.
"'We are elves,' I replied.
"Suddenly my face was struck with such a savage blow that I was certain that I had lost some teeth. 'You will address me as My Lord. I will not tolerate insolence from shrimps!'
"I was badly shaken but I found it in myself to utter, 'We are elves, My Lord.'
"Another blow struck me hard against the face. This time I staggered from it. I was hard-pressed to retain my balance. 'Elves!' the big man bellowed. 'There are no such things as elves! You shall suffer for your indignance towards the Baron of Castelo Branco. Now tell me truthfully before I wrench your limbs from your body, who you are and where you come from and why you are here?'
"I did not know what to say. To admit that we were elves would only rekindle his fury. But we were elves and part of being an elf is always to speak the truth. I had no other recourse but to say again, 'We are elves, My Lord. We come from a land to the east of here and we come only to your country on a pleasure venture.'
"I was wincing from another blow. This baron was not one to mince with his ruthlessness. The blow that I was wincing from came as a thunderbolt. I was smashed against the cold stone floor. My breath was taken away from me. All that I could hear was muffled shouting that was spoken in an elfin tongue. Hickory had come to my defense but even he was powerless against the Baron of Castelo Branco. If ever there was a vile man, it was this one. Hickory was cast against the floor. He was more fortunate than I for he was knocked senseless. I still had my wits, scrambled though they were.
"A hand seized the back of my jerkin and I was hauled to my feet with an arm that was as powerful as a bear. Once again, I was forced to look into the malicious mien of the Baron. He was grinning. All his massive teeth were displayed in a show of corrupt power.
"'I will learn who you truly are soon enough, my shrimp,' he hissed. 'There are other matters that are more important at present than your identity. Yesterday, you and your saucy companion were seen in the company of a creature that the locals superstitiously call the Questionner. I give no more creedence to the existence of the harpy than I do the existence of elves. But from the lips of my battered informant, I learn that some precious stones have come into your possession. These stones, emeralds they are, are my possession. Anything of value within my barony belongs to me. Hand over these stones and I will be merciful as far as I can be that disgusting quality.'
"I now recollected that man that I saw running. He was the Baron's spy. He had witnessed the Questionner giving Hickory the emeralds. He had been true to his detestable vocation and had informed the evil baron of what he had seen. Like the soldiers, he was punished for performing his duty. How could the common people tolerate such a cruel tyrant, I wondered. Surely, they would revolt. But upon looking at this wicked man's fearsome visage I understood that terror would be instilled in the hearts of the citizenry. They would be rendered impotent by this fear. I was feeling the same. It did not matter to me Hickory's vow to the harpy. Of what manner of importance was casting a few stones into the ocean? Let the Baron have his emeralds and let us walk away from this bad dream.
"Hickory lay senseless upon the floor. I am sure that if he were conscious he would deny the Baron his request. I would rather deal with Hickory's wrath than the Baron's. Without further prompting, I told the Baron that he could find what he was looking for in the leather pouch beneath Hickory's jerkin.
"He must have feared a boobytrap. He probably heard some tales that have circulated among the humans that we elves are natural-born tricksters. For instead of greedily tearing into Hickory's jerkin as I thought he would, he gestured for me to remove Hickory's purse.
"Without hesitation I complied with his demand. As I have said earlier, I had no idea of the importance of Hick's vow to the Questionner. All I wanted to do was to get out of this harrowing situation with as little trouble as possible. My trembling hands got hold of the leather pouch. Already, I could sense that something was wrong. A leather pouch filled with gems should not feel soft and vacuous. With a quick tug I snapped the string that held the purse to Hickory's neck. The pouch felt as if it were empty. I could feel the Baron's large dark eyes groping me with hate. I was now certain that the gems were not there. I started to try to tell the Baron that it seemed that the emeralds were missing but my throat was seized with a dry fear.
"He snatched the purse from my hands. His breath was fetid with the odour of smoked fish. The leather puch was dwarfed by his brawny hands. He split the leather with one yank. He didn't even bother loosening the string. As my fear rose I could see that my suspicions were confirmed. There was nothing in the sac.
"'Where are the stones?' he bellowed in a voice that rang through the forecourt of his palace. Without waiting for an answer from me he shred the jerkin from Hickory and stripped him naked. Taking the raiements, his anger was livid. Nothing fell from any of the pockets.
"Next thing I knew he was clutching me by the throat and demanding that I hand over the stones. 'I do not have them, My Lord,' I gasped. I had very little air reaching my lungs.
"The Baron heaved me against the stone floor. 'Guard!' he called. Instantly two of the brutes that had cordonned the miscreant soldiers to the stockade stamped their booted feet in attention. 'My Lord,' they said.
"They were ordered to strip-search me and to bring water and smelling salts for Hickory. If you have ever been stip-searched before you will know that it is a most indignant treatment to experience. I daresay that you are reduced to nothing more than a common object. I was brusquely treated by ill-mannered brutes that cared little if they hurt me. Yet when this grotesque ruffianism came to an end, there was found no gems on my person.
"And so it was with Hickory who after being forced to sniff the salts and being dowsed with water had to undergo the same prisonyard ritual.
"'Where have you concealed the gems?' the Baron roared in English, a language that we all spoke.
"'What gems?' Hickory replied dumbly. He was not going to admit any knowledge of the emeralds whatsoever.
"'Don't be coy with me. Your cowardly partner has already confirmed their existence.' the Baron growled.
"I had no choice, Hick, believe me!' I cried. There was only the faintest trace of anger in Hickory's eyes although I knew full well that there was a blazing furnace of wrath deep within him. But he was not about to reveal it to the Baron. He would wait until we were alone before he would unleash his red emotions upon me.
"'My partner is a simpleton,' Hickory said to the Baron. I believe that he meant those words. 'He knows not a tree from a forest. If you cannot see that, my lord, then I must question your ability to govern.'
"That Hickory was as uncooth as a mongoose with a cobra. It just seemed that he did not know fear. To call the Baron of Castelo Branco a fool to his beastly face takes a lot of nerve. It takes elfin verve.
"A fool keeps company only with a fool,' the Baron retorted. 'You cannot trick me, my little shrimp. I have witnesses that saw you receiving the stones.'
"'Who gave me the stones?' Hickory snapped. 'Upon my ancestors' spirits I can swear that I have never been to this country before and that I do not know a living soul that resides here. So then who could possibly have given me these alleged stones that your whimsy has cooked up?'
"I could see that the Baron had crumbled somewhat. If he were to say that his spy had seen a bird regurgitate the emeralds into Hick's hands, Hickory would cry out, 'Lark! Lark! What kind of fairytale world do you and your henchmen live in? A bird give me stones? I would sooner believe that I was an elf!"