Sunday, December 5, 2010

Tarian and the Ogre

Laird Colyne Stewart
Jan AS XL (2006)

It was a glorious wonderful morning the day Tarian verch Gadarn woke without her smile. She did not notice the scowl on her face as she got dressed, nor did she think anything was wrong when her husband Randy asked her if she was alright. She ate her breakfast in sullen silence, then grabbed a basket and headed for the market.

On the way she passed Eirik Andersen and Wat of Sarum practicing at arms in the square. Both called out cheerfully to her, but she merely grunted and walked past. Both men looked stunned for a moment, then shrugged and continued their practice.

Tarian stomped past the miller’s and across the bridge, almost knocking Snæbjörn over the side as she passed him. Frowning she strode through the stalls at the market, ignoring every friendly greeting and waved hand. Eventually, she felt a tug on her sleeve, and looked down at young Adelaide van der Eych. Adelaide asked her what was wrong, and frowning deeper, Tarian said nothing was. “Then why,” asked Adelaide, “are you frowning so?” Tarian turned and looked at her reflection, where it gazed scowling back at her from a bronze tureen hanging on a stall.

Tarian was perplexed, she had no idea why she was frowning. She did not feel angry, or sad. She tried to smile but found that she couldn’t. Alarmed she went to the seneschal, who told her about a hedge-witch just outside of town who might be able to help her. So Tarian picked up her skirts and walked along the road out of the village and into the countryside.

Before long she found the hedge-witch at the side of the road. The old woman was a Rus, and was sitting at a rough-made wooden table in front of a red wagon. Tarian sat down across from her, and the old woman blinked a few times. After she had explained her problem, the old woman pursed her lips and sighed.

“Do you know of the Ogre of Arden?” she asked. Tarian shook her head, and the Rus went on to explain that the Ogre lived in the woods of northern Arden, which is one of the counties of Ardchreag. This Ogre lived in a gloomy castle, and was envious of those who were filled with laughter and joy. So at night he would sneak into people’s homes and steal their smiles with his dark magic. This, said the Rus, is what had happened to Tarian. To regain her smile, Tarian would have to travel north and find the Ogre’s castle, which was called Gloom Tor.

Not wasting a moment, Tarian thanked the woman and gave her some coin, and headed out into the forest. Before long she found herself in an orange grove, with the trees laden with fruit. She could hear a chittering noise coming closer, and suddenly a furry face popped down out of the tree in front of her. Hanging upside down and regarding her was a large red squirrel. It wrinkled its nose very cutely and said, “A good morning to ya.” When he got no response, the squirrel looked confused. He jumped down to the ground and gazed up at Tarian. He popped three acorns out of his mouth, began to juggle, and danced around the grove signing a bawdy song about sailers. When Tarian did not laugh or even crack a smile he stopped, muttering something about her being a tough nut to crack.

Tarian apologized and said his capers were very entertaining, but that the Ogre of Arden had stolen her smile.

“Tha’ I kin understae,” said the squirrel in its deep brogue. “Tha’ ogre’s been a problem ‘round these parts fer many a year now. You look like a bonnie lass, and it seems a shame to see ya without a smile, so if you’d let me, I’d be more than happy to help ya get yer smile back.” Tarian thanked the red squirrel for his help, and together they walked father into the forest.

As they went further and further north, the red squirrel got more and more quiet. He told Tarian that the last woodward of Ardchreag had gone missing in the black woods of Arden, though, he assured her, nothing would happen to them. They then walked in silence for a time, until they came upon a den. Small bones and bits of cloth were strewn about the ground before it, and a rough trestle table covered in baskets sat just outside. Hesitantly they crept towards the den, and looked inside the baskets. Within each basket lay a pile of bones. Some looked like they had been there for a very long time, while some looked quite freshly cleaned. Sitting atop one pile was a horn, which Tarian picked up, recognizing it as the horn of Ardchreag’s woodward.

“That is mine,” said a cold voice from behind them. They turned, and saw a tall gaunt figure wrapped in a black cloak stalk out of the den. Its face was covered by a hood, but crimson flashed where its eyes should be, and light glinted off what appeared to be sharp teeth. It held its thin, horny hands before its chest, the knobby fingers steepled together. “Usually I have to go hunting for my treasures,” it hissed as it glided closer. “I do not usually have treasures come walking into my den, bold as can be. Luckily I have an empty basket, and a fire under my pot to boil away your flesh.”

Tarian’s eyes widened in fright, and the red squirrel hid itself within the folds of her skirt. She could feel it shaking in fear, and its child-like size made her think of her infant son Ethan, and this gave her strength. Not knowing what else to do, she brought the horn to her lips and blew it as hard as she could right in the bone collector’s face. The creature clutched at its head and roared in pain, and Tarian kept sounding the horn, until the collector shrunk back to the refuge of its den. The reverberations caused by the blowing of the horn caused some scree to fall in front of the den’s opening, followed by a crash as rocks and trees shook loose from their perch and crashed down, sealing the bone collector in its den.

When the sound diminished, Tarian shook the dust off her shirts, and she and the red squirrel continued on their way. Before much longer they found themselves standing before the gate of a decrepit castle, its towers sagging with age and hung with creepers. The gate itself was hanging half off its hinges, and they easily slipped through into the castle yard. The only sounds they heard were the cawing of crows, and the occasional block of stone finally falling free from a tower to hit the earth below.

They entered the castles great hall, and passed rotting tapestries and rusted suits of armour, making their way to the great hall. There, they found the Ogre.

The Ogre was sitting at a large table, strewn with baubles and trinkets. His horns were curled like a ram’s, and his body was covered in thick shaggy hair. It’s wide black eyes flicked up to regard them as they came closer.

“Who are you?” it asked in a deep, moaning voice.

“My name is Tarian verch Gadarn,” she said. “And, uh, I believe you may have something of mine.”

“Quite possible,” grunted the Ogre. “I have a lot of things that belong to other people. Other people experience laughter, joy, contentment. I have never known these things. And so I covet them, and I take the things that bring these feelings to people.” He waved a paw at the table, covered with jewelry, books, bits of armour, food and other geegaws. “These things all brought other people joy, but for me they only bring more sorrow.” It looked at her more closely. “I recognize you now. Yes, I took your smile. It’s there, upon the table, in that little box. So small a thing, a smile, and yet it brought you so much happiness. For me, though, nothing.”

“You cannot force a thing to make you happy,” said Tarian. “These items all brought their owner joy, because they meant something special to them. You cannot force them to be special for you.”

“I suppose you are right,” sighed the Ogre, “and so I am doomed to continue to live without happiness or joy.”

“Not neccessarialy,” said the red squirrel. It hopped up on the table and the Ogre blinked as he saw it for the first time. As it had done for Tarian, they squirrel began juggling and dancing and singing and soon a small smile had formed on the Ogre’s toothy mouth. With frenetic energy the squirrel continued its foolery and before long the Ogre was bellowing with laughter and slamming a paw on the table.

“Stop! Stop!” It bellowed. “It is too much all at once! Like a flood after a long drought!” Once it had regained its composure, with only the odd giggle escaping its lips, the Ogre looked down fondly at the squirrel. “My friend, I thank you, for you have finally given me what I have longed for all my life.”

The Ogre then gave Tarian the box, and as she opened it a large smile blossomed on her face, and the Ogre himself smiled back to see it. The Ogre packed all the other possessions he had stolen over the years and he, Tarian and the red squirrel returned to the village. There, the Ogre found great joy in helping Tarian find the owners of all the stolen property. The red squirrel then returned to the castle with the Ogre, and they became fast friends.

And in the long years to come Tarian never again ever lost her smile.

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