Saying their goodbyes, Garr and Leorrelai walked hand in hand through the sumptuous garden at the rear of the Maggies Tits Inn. “I don’t know how long my training will take. Flynn has been particularly reticent on the subject. He has said, however, that given my lineage and physical attributes (here he thrust out his chest and grinned proudly) I should be a quick study.”
“Ugh! Such conceit, oaf!” exclaimed Leorrelai, playfully delivering a jab to Garr’s out-thrust mid-section. As Garr doubled forward in reaction she held his head and kissed him long and passionately. “Damn it! I am going to miss you so,” she said, burying her head in his shoulder and trying to be strong for she knew how much this meant to Garr.
“And I, you. You know, in the short time I’ve known you, I’ve come to truly love you, Lai.” Here he lifted her chin to gaze deeply into her eyes. “I love you more every day than the previous day and less than the day to come. It just seems to build and build and yet there’s always room for more.”
As she met his gaze, Leorrelai said, “Yes my love. We will have that inscribed on our marriage chalice, ‘More than yesterday and less than tomorrow’. It will be the saying that stands true for our love no matter how much time or distance separates us.” Then they silently held each other until Garr heard Huldred summon him through the rear door of the inn.
“Come,” said Garr. “See me off.”
Out in front of the inn, the company of friends was drawn up awaiting Garr’s arrival. In the group were Flynn, Helmut, Tykk, Bromar and, of course, Dolf.
“Well, finally,” said Helmut, grinning broadly. “Nice of you to make an appearance, Master Guntarsen. Have you… OOF!” His last words were cut off by Tykk’s stout finger poking him brusquely in the kidney. “Cripes! You fat bastard. That hurt.”
Tykk’s response was to wag his finger in Helmut’s face and say, “Unh unh! You, my jaded friend, have forgotten what it is to be in love.”
“That’s not true!” Helmut protested. And then leaning in close he winked and amended, “Fact is, I’ve never been in love. Never stuck around long enough, if you catch my drift.”
“Ha! Yes,” Tykk replied. “That I do, sir.” At that he turned his huge gelding and led the troupe down the street toward the edge of town.
Garr had mounted Baldur by this time and noticed for the first time that Huldred had made no move to join the departing group. “Huldred,” he said in surprise, “are you not coming with us?”
“What use would I be, Puppy?” she said, reaching up to take his hand in hers. “The only way I could add to Master Flynn’s lessons would be at the end of a stout hickory switch and I’d daresay you’ve had quite enough of that from me, boy.”
Garr leaned down to kiss her wrinkled cheek and was surprised to see that her eyes were wet with tears. He cupped her chin in his strong hand, smiled and said, “Huldred, that switch of yours is the only thing about you that I won’t miss.”
“Bah!” came her response as a betraying tear stole down through the sea of wrinkles that was her face. “Sentimental garbage. Go now. You’re wasting time,” and with this last she issued Baldur a swift smack on the haunches sending the horse trotting down Haarm’s Way to catch up with the others. As he turned to wave, he saw Leorrelai, Huldred and Ilsa link arms and return his wave and he knew in that moment that they had formed a bond borne of the fact that they would miss him and his companions and a sad chord tugged at his heartstrings.
But ahead of him lay adventure. He spurred Baldur on until he had caught up with his friends. As he reigned in next to Dolf on Freyja, Dolf sighed and said, “Sheesh, I miss Ilsa already and we’ve not even reached the edge of town. I love her, you know, Garr.”
“I know the feeling,” Garr confessed. “It’s all that bawdy Maggie’s fault. She’s a romantic matchmaking witch, you know.”
They laughed together. “Old Fatbelly’s ale helps too,” added Dolf.
The road to Fjelhiem was a winding track meandering hither and yon in a dizzying array of turns and switchbacks that would have confounded even the most astute trackers. There were deliberate confusions in the trail such as turns and backtracks that because of their placement had to be followed but logistically made no sense. Such was the design of all access routes to Fjelhiem. It was laid over canyons and defiles to make it inconvenient in the extreme. The average traveler would have no reason to go there, and that was just as the original architects of Fjelhiem had intended it. The average traveler was simply not welcomed at Fjelhiem, except in the direst of circumstances. Flynn would never turn away a desperate traveler in need, but he would in the same token, never entertain the casual visitor. Fjelhiem was a fortress and was to be respected as such.
Strategically Fjelhiem was another wonder. Set at the highpoint of a mountain pass that commanded an overview of all the immediate terrain it was almost like it was built on a cloud. Nothing that happened for miles around would escape the notice of a vigilant watcher perched at the balustrade of Fjelhiem. The only point in the area that was higher than the fortress itself was the precipitous spire it was built against, and the backside of that was a sheer cliff that dropped off for thousands of feet. Fjelhiem was in short, a gem of defensibility.
Garr noticed it from miles away. “Wow! I assume that is where we’re headed,” he said, pointing up at the lofty citadel.
“Right you are, lad,” said Briar, the pride evident in his voice. “Generations of warriors have trained there, your revered father not least among them. Alas, there was a time in my father’s day that it was a flurry of activity, people coming and going to and fro. All that’s changed now. All that occupy mighty Fjelhiem now are old; Algar, my right hand man who looks after the place when I’m away, Loki, Eben and yours truly. It’ll be good to have company once again.”
“We’ll see how you feel about that after these two have had a go at your grog and larder,” said Bromar, indicating Tykk and Helmut with flip of the thumb. “I give ‘em two days, three at most before you give ‘em the old heave-ho.” At this he spurred his little pony ahead before the indicted duo caught sight of his burgeoning grin.
Tykk and Helmut exchanged looks of righteous indignation and chorused, “Us?”
Tykk laughed but Helmut took umbrage and spat, “Yeah, well at least we’re not… err… not…” He looked to Tykk for help, but the big man only grinned and shrugged. Finally in a blatant exhibition of linguistic ineptitude he completed his insult with, “Short!”
Tykk laughed out loud. “Whoa! That must have cut deep. You are such a buffoon!” At that he spurred his own massive steed forward to catch up with Briar and Bromar.
By this time Garr and Dolf were just easing their mounts abreast of Helmut. Helmut leaned in so that both heard clearly and said, “Ya see what I have to put up with from that fat bastard?”
“Yes,” said Garr. “You poor delicate thing. Such disrespect, don’t you think, Dolf?”
“Absolutely,” Dolf responded. “If I were you, you know what I’d do, Helmut?”
Helmut rolled his eyes. “I’m afraid to ask.”
“I’d divorce him,” said Dolf as he and Garr laughed and cantered past Helmut leaving the giant in dusty, insulted silence to bring up the rear.
Briar had said something that had piqued Garr’s interest. He spurred Baldur to the fore of the line abreast with Briar and asked, “Who is this Algar? I don’t recall you mentioning him before.”
“Oh well, please forgive me, Master Garr. How incredibly inconsiderate of me to not have made you privy to every facet of my life.” He pulled up his cowl against the wind and grinned within its folds as he let Garr stew in his discomfiture for a while.
Garr was shamefaced and sputtered inept apologies until Briar could take it no more. “Relax, lad,” he said, “I’m having fun at your expense.”
“Oh, great,” said Garr, “another Huldred.”
‘Well, I’ve been called worse,” Briar admitted. “But as to your question, laddie; Algar has been at Fjelhiem longer than I by far. I don’t usually speak of him, as that’s the way he wants it. A very solemn and introspective individual is he, and I respect that. But, as he’s bound to be a part of your lives for at least as long as it takes to get you trained, I don’t suppose a bit of old Algar’s history would hurt.”
Briar continued. “Algar, you see, is an elf. He served my father and now he serves me. Point of fact, I don’t know what I’d do without him. But before you go getting the wrong idea, let me state for the record that he is no mean servant. Hardly that. He’s a scholar and a high-ranking monk of his order. Oh, he cooks and does all the other things that are considered domestic chores, but only because he is so fastidious and my own domestic skills, I’m sorry to say, are abysmal. I am but a warrior, and an old one at that.”
Garr thought about that for a moment and finally said, “Forgive me if my nose is in too far, but you say he served you and your father both. In what capacity if not as homemaker?”
With a sidelong look at Garr, Briar tapped his temple and said, “As teacher, lad. As mentor. Taught me all my life and teaches me still, he does.” At this he gazed up at his fortress home and said, “That’s all I’ll say for now. You’ll be meeting him soon enough. Ah, see there; the vigilant old hawk has spotted us already.” He pointed ahead at the lowering drawbridge. “Been watching us for miles through that spy glass of his, I’ll wager.”
The group rode the rest of the way in silent awe. The closer to Fjelhiem they got, the more overwhelmed they became. It was a huge edifice that, while being constructed primarily for utilitarian purposes, it was also a celebration of art in living stone. Tall spires and crenellations loomed overhead while a series of flying buttresses spanned chasms to anchor the whole affair to the living granite of the mountain itself.
By the time they reached the drawbridge it had been completely lowered, and through a formidable-looking portcullis Garr could just make out the robed figure of a very tall individual leaning heavily on a staff. As they began to traverse the drawbridge amid a clatter of hoof-falls that seemed echo forever into the depths of the chasm beneath, the figure suddenly lifted the staff high over its head and then down heavily onto the flags of the courtyard floor, which also set up a reverberating din. In a thundering voice, the figure demanded, “Who approaches? State your identity and your intentions!”
“Algar, must we do this every time?” asked Flynn. Then he leaned in to Garr, and said, “Algar has a flare for the dramatic.”
“Ceremony has its place for a reason,” Algar asserted. “Now answer the questions!” Briar let go an exasperated sigh and began, “I am Briar MacCaffery Flynn, Sverdmester; Lord of Fjelhiem and guardian of the pass.”
With a perfunctory nod toward the rest of the group, the elf asked, “And them?” Sweeping his cloak in an overly theatrical manner quipped, “Allow me to present Prince Garr Guntarsen and his royal entourage. Satisfied?”
Algar squinted and rubbed his chin and said, “Guntarsen, eh? Hmm… okay. C’mon in,” and at that he sauntered over to the wall and pulled a lever which through a series of pulleys, counterbalances and wheels, set the portcullis in motion. When it was sufficiently raised, Briar and the rest passed through into a large hexagonal courtyard. The floor of the courtyard was of flagstone except for what was obviously a training area. There the ground was grass or hard-packed clay. Directly in front of them, at the far wall was a wide set of stairs leading through an archway at their head. All the remaining walls of the hexagon were fashioned as cloistered archways leading to doors of differing shapes and sizes. But the most striking feature was that it was huge. Garr was amazed to note a long run at the training area that was obviously set up for horse and lance work, and still there was plenty of room for everything else including a garden. There were two gardens actually; one for produce and one for aesthetics.
As Garr and the others dismounted and continued to gape, Briar advanced on Algar with a feigned scowl. They embraced in the time-honored warrior fashion, both hands gripping the others’ forearms.
“Well met, old elf,” said Briar in greeting, and then in a much lower voice, “I assume the added theatrics were for the benefit of our guests?”
“One can never place too much emphasis on courtly dogma, Briar. It maintains an air of decorum and curriculum, not to mention respect,” said Algar smiling conspiratorially. “First impressions and all that, you know. So,” he continued with a curt nod in Garr’s direction, “this is the get of Guntar Bloodaxe, hmm?” He appraised Garr approvingly and said, “He’s got the look of his father, I’ll give ‘im that. Seems fit enough.”
“Very fit. In body, mind and most importantly, heart,” said Briar. “And I’ll be needing you on your best behavior; no head games with this one. I’ve no idea how much time we have to whip him into shape but Huldred assures me that there’s something very consequential in the offing with him. Apparently our success and/or failure with Garr will count for much, so we must concentrate on that which is important and use the time wisely. Come now, let me introduce you.”
And so began their lives at Fjelhiem, and as Garr would recount many years later, “It was no picnic.” Their quarters were very clean but very Spartan; a basin and water pitcher, two pallets and two footlockers were all that adorned each room. Breakfast was at the crack of dawn, and by that time they had already put in two hard hours of drills and calisthenics on the training ground, which Tykk had dubbed “The Boneyard”, because of the way it brought out the aches in his.
There was no noontime meal, only water. For three hours after noon, they would sit in class being administered to by Algar. He taught them everything from rune reading to mathematic skills, from history to social graces (which Garr hated) and his favorite, science. When Garr complained at learning what Algar labeled “social sciences”, the elf had stated, “Boy, one might well be the world’s most scientifically or mathematically blessed genius; he might carry myriad solutions to all the plagues of his time. But if he picks his nose and farts in the courts of kings, who will listen to him?”
No matter what Garr would complain about, Algar would shoot it down effortlessly and succinctly with the weapons of experience and logic leaving Garr red-faced or apologetic. Finally, he just learned to keep his mouth shut and his ears open and when he did, he realized that this was one of the most important lesson of all. Soon his questions became more pertinent, more sophisticated and most of all, treated with more respect by Algar. Garr realized that he, and indeed the entire group, were learning to enjoy Algar’s brand of education.
After their schooling, it was back to the boneyard for four more hours of grueling physical training, and then to the baths before the evening meal. Garr had always considered himself a very clean person, but even he had never taken more than one complete bath a week. But here he did. When, at first, he had questioned the need, he was told, “Just do it.” Now, many months later, he realized that the baths were prescribed as much to deal with aches and pains as dirt and grime.
They all looked forward to the evening meal. It was always complete and nutritious and very often sumptuous, with more than they could finish (with the possible exception of Helmut). There were always soups and some form of meat, cheeses, fresh beads, vegetables (cooked and raw), nuts and fruits (fresh and dried). There was also plenty of ale and wine.
For an hour or sometimes two, after supper, they would all congregate before the ample fireplace in Fjelhiem’s hall and share stories and histories. With ample grog and different kinds of imported smoking leaf to relax with, the time seemed to just glide away.
Briar had said, on their first night at the fortress, that this was to be a nightly event explaining, “You fellows, and Algar and myself, as your teachers, will be putting in long and seemingly hellish days with little to sustain us during the long hours. So I happen to place great importance on enjoying the end of the day with good refreshment and good company. It helps us to remember why we are comrades. Contrary to popular opinion, I happen to believe that, familiarity breeds contempt only among the contemptuous. The righteous minds of righteous men seek righteous means.”
Garr and the others had learned as much at these day’s end meetings as they did at class. What they learned was on a relaxed, less formal basis, sans the structured lectures. They learned, for instance that Algar was in fact a sort of indentured servant. Algar explained that, generations ago, the Alfar (“elfin” in the common tongue) nation became indebted to the lordship of Fjelhiem because of aid given during the dragon wars dating back to prehistory. Apparently the lord of Fjelhiem at that time, one Jaxx the Insane, had sent aid in the form of a substantial army to the embattled elfin host. The war was eventually won, but at great cost. Some seventy percent of the elfin male population had been lost. It was, in fact, why the present elf population was still so small, elves being long-lived and slow to breed. Also, in that conflict, both of Jaxx’s sons were slain leaving him with no rightful heir. So from that point on the lordship of Fjelhiem, having been bequeathed to a nephew was actually a stewardship. Because of the lasting bond Jaxx’s selfless sacrifice had created, Algallion, the elfin king, declared that from that time forward, the second son of the elfin royal house would be sent to serve the lordship of Fjelhiem as long as both houses endured. This act cemented a permanent bond between the elves and men of that area.
“So that makes you a prince, Algar,” said Dolf with renewed awe for this enigmatic fellow that he had grown to respect so much already.
Algar sat calmly with his hands inside the sleeves of his robe, smiled and nodded. It was Briar, sitting next to him that answered. Grasping Algar’s shoulder jovially he said, “Make no mistake, lads, this is the real Master of Fjelhiem; I am but a day-servant.” Even Algar laughed at that.
And so the days at Fjelhiem were spent, in regimen and camaraderie. The physical rigors had bolstered them all. Even Tykk, while he would never be a thin man, was showing considerable weight-loss and muscle tone. He was still a mountain of a man, but as Briar had observed, “Now he’s a well-formed mountain.”
Garr had found that over time he had come to look upon Fjelhiem as home, and of his unlikely band of cohorts as family. He missed Huldred and those back at Haarm, especially Leorrelai, but Fjelhiem was more of a home to him now than even Josdahl had been. He did not look forward to leaving, but knew that the day would inevitably come.