Batefimba heard Mazimba and Fevan approaching before she saw them. Her grandson was well known in the community for his happy laugh and his voice’s love for long-distance travel.
He was forever bringing friends, some of long standing and others only recently acquired, back to the treehouse he and his grandmother shared, for dinner, so the sound of Mazimba arriving home in conversation with someone was so familiar to her she usually didn’t even pay it any attention until he came through the door with his companion.
This time, though, she caught a high-pitched laugh she didn’t recognise , and she left her kitchen to go and open the door herself.
“Umamba!” Mazimba exclaimed from a few strides away as he saw the door open. “What is it?”
His grandmother rarely came to the door, unless news had reached her of some mischief he had got up to that would require a stern talking to. However nothing came to mind this time as he did a rapid mental scan of the day’s events.
“Can’t a grandmother open the door for her beloved grandson?” Batefimba responded, slightly indignantly, her eyes fixed on Fevan, a step behind Mazimba. If the visitor had noticed the change in his cheery tone, it didn’t register on her face as she surveyed the unfamiliar surroundings.
“Umamba,” Mazimba used his term of respect for his grandmother again, “this is Fevan. She arrived under the Mighty Pine this afternoon. Monkeybreath requests you to give her a meal, and a bed for the night.”
Batefimba had surmised as much the instant she saw Fevan, but listened intently to her grandson before nodding. “Of course,” she said. “Welcome, child. I am Batefimba. Come in, you look weary.”
“Thank you,” the young elf said. “You are very kind, like everyone here.”
As Monkeybreath had assumed she would, Batefimba immediately realised the purpose of Fevan being sent to her home for the night, and she quickly noticed something that seemed to have escaped the attention of the other residents the elf had encountered so far.
“Did you not bring any possessions with you, Fevan?” she asked. “Do you have no bag, no spare clothes?”
“I do not, Batefimba,” she replied, suddenly crestfallen. “When I fled from the community under my birth tree, I had to travel light and leave quickly. I managed to take some food with me, but that was gone within a couple of days.
“So what I am wearing is all I have to my name,” she continued. And my shoes are wearing through from all the walking,” she added, pointing to the sole on her right shoe, through which her foot was visible.
“Goodness, child,” said Batefimba. “We will have to find some new attire for you.”
“For the last few days, I have had to scavenge under cover of darkness for anything I could eat,” Fevan explained. “I found some fruit and edible plants, but it was far too risky to build a fire out in the open, so I could not cook.
“I must confess I had begun to wonder if I would be forced to try to go back to my birth tree, even though many living under it will now have turned against me. I spent several nights wandering aimless and hungry, with no clear idea where I was, or where I might find another community similar to the one I grew up in.
“Then last night, as I was walking under cover of darkness, I crossed paths with a furriensis some distance from here. I was terribly afraid, because he was so big, and in the dark he looked like some kind of fearsome monster, but he showed real concern about my situation. He bent down ever so gently and told me to climb up and sit on his back while he walked.”
“Ah yes, Rupertonix,” Batefimba said. “He has been a great ally to us.”
“The sun came up shortly afterwards,” Fevan continued. “The furriensis told me he had to go back to the castle where the giants who own him live, as they would become concerned if he was not there for his breakfast.
“I was worried about being close to the giants, but he assured me both that they would be unable to see me and that they were kindly, despite their size.”
Batefimba listened thoughtfully. She and the other residents of the Mighty Pine had never encountered the giants directly, although sometimes they heard noises coming from the direction of the castle. Once, standing near to the end of one of the Mighty Pine’s spreading branches, she had seen one of them pushing a noisy contraption of some sort back and forth on the ground outside the castle. It had made her and those she told about it fearful of coming into contact with the giants.
“Rupertonix did not take long to get to the castle,” Fevan said. “He walked around the back, past some sort of strange blue lake. Soon he came to a giant doorway and instructed me to lie flat to avoid being hurt. Then he walked headfirst towards a square-shaped panel at the bottom of the door.
“I confess I still had my head up as he walked towards it, intrigued to see what he was doing, but when it became clear he was not going to stop, I lay down and held on, fearful of what was about to happen.
“I was expecting a collision, but instead the panel moved aside as Rupertonix’s head touched it and when I next looked up, we were in a huge room. There was a giant there with long, golden hair, who turned around as we entered. She smiled when she saw Rupertonix, although that is not what she called him.
“’Hello, Puss!’ she exclaimed, and walked across the room, bending to scratch his back. I had to move to prevent her giant hand touching me, but she did seem very affectionate to her furriensis, and he started making a contented noise in his throat.
“ ‘Breakfast time!’ the golden-haired giant went on, and poured some objects that looked like square brown rocks into a big container on the floor. They did not look at all appetising, but Rupertonix seemed not to notice that, and he ate hungrily until they were all gone.
“Then he went to another round container, alongside the first one. It was full of water, and he lapped at it for quite some time. Sitting close to his head, I must admit I had to hold on to that belt around his neck to stop myself from being thrown off into the water!
“Eventually he stopped and I could relax. Despite my nervousness about being detected, I let out a rather loud sigh of relief, then realised what I had done and panicked that the giant might have heard.
“She didn’t turn around, however. She seemed to be busy cooking and there was no indication that she had heard me. Rupertonix started making that rumbling sound in his throat again, and that helped to calm me.”
“Is that when you left the castle?” Mazimba, who had been listening to the story with a growing look of astonishment on his face, asked.
“Not quite,” Fevan replied. “First he walked across to where the giant was standing and rubbed against her leg. I happened to turn around at that moment and I noticed his tail was pointing straight at the ceiling. He seemed very contented, especially when she stooped down and scratched his back vigorously.
“I thought I might be knocked right off his back then, so I grabbed hold of that belt and swung down alongside his neck, out of reach of her hand.”
“Thank goodness for the belt,” Batefimba said.
“Yes, it was useful, though if I had fallen to the floor, I’m sure Rupertonix would have protected me,” Fevan said.
“After a few minutes, he headed straight towards the door. As he was about to exit, the giant called out ‘Behave yourself! Don’t go chasing any birds!’ I wasn’t too sure what she meant. Rupertonix acted as though he hadn’t heard.
“Then we were outside again, and after resting in the shade for a little while after his meal, he brought me here. It seems a little unreal, like some sort of crazy adventure. I’m so relieved to feel safe,” Fevan said, tiredly. “Thank you again for your kindness.”
“It’s so much for you to process,” Batefimba answered, “but at least you will be able to do that in safety. I daresay you’ll need plenty of rest over the next few days to recover from your ordeal.
“But first, food, so you can get your strength up.”
“Umamba’s pine needle and field mushroom stew is renowned throughout the Mighty Pine community,” Mazimba said, adding, with a chuckle, “partly because she makes doubly sure to cut the sharp points off all the needles.”
“Behave, Mazimba,” his grandmother gently admonished. “You know it’s standard practice to cut them off. Your unfortunate experience at Nemanda’s home was as a result of his mother having been called away while cooking. You know she’s a key member of the Mighty Pine emergency services. There were more urgent things on her mind at that moment than feeding hungry young rascals like yourselves.”
“Yes, Umamba, I get your point,” Mazimba chuckled. He glanced over at Fevan, but she seemed not to have caught his witty retort. She was too busy ploughing ravenously through a bowl of stew.
Batefimba watched the famished new arrival with a slight smile on her face, and with no doubt in her mind that the elf’s hunger was genuine.
Of course, she realised, if this was part of a sophisticated attempt to infiltrate their harmonious community, Fevan would present as being in genuine hardship, so this could simply be brilliant acting.
About halfway through her second bowl of stew … Batefimba saw her eyes close for a second and her head drop momentarily.
But she somehow doubted it. There was nothing that suggested this was all a front.
Fevan’s exhaustion also appeared real. About halfway through her second bowl of stew, as she was chewing on a mouthful, Batefimba saw her eyes close for a second and her head drop momentarily. The sudden motion jerked her awake and she sat up, blushing, and continued with her meal.
“Don’t worry to finish if you’re too tired, Fevan,” Batefimba said, and the elf stopped with a look of relief on her face.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s delicious, but I’m struggling to keep my eyes open. I’m even more exhausted than I thought I was.”
“Come, I’ll take you to your room,” Batefimba said, leading the way down a short, narrow passage to a room at the end of the house. Fevan noted in passing that it had a big window that offered a view along one of the Mighty Pine’s spreading boughs, before she sat down on the bed to remove her worn shoes.
“If you need to wash, the bathroom is just along the passage here,” Batefimba said. She was standing in the doorway, pointing, but as she turned back to the room it was obvious Fevan was going nowhere. She had fallen back onto the bed, one of her shoes only halfway off, and was fast asleep.
Batefimba lifted the young elf’s legs onto the bed, removing her shoe and positioning her so her head was on the pillow, before covering her with a blanket, blowing out the lamp next to the bed, and shutting the door quietly behind her. Though it struck her that she could just as well have slammed it.
With her visitor asleep, and Mazimba having gone off to his room too, Batefimba had time to ponder the evening’s events. She hadn’t eaten yet, having been focused on attending to her guest, and now she dished up a bowl of stew for herself and ate in silence, thoughts criss-crossing her mind.
She had instinctively liked Fevan and the fact that Rupertonix had been happy to bring the young elf to Mighty Pine felt significant to her. His instincts were sound and she knew he would never have knowingly endangered their community.
The furriensis had been an unlikely protector of the settlement for several years now. She felt certain he would have picked up on any ulterior motive Fevan might have had and not brought her anywhere near Mighty Pine.
But those were just her instincts, she realised. They could inform her decision, but they weren’t a substitute for a careful watch on the pine elf over the next 24 hours, or however long Lazarn decided to leave Fevan under her care. She would have to observe every move made by the one Mazimba had told her, slightly mockingly, was “widely known as Twinkletoes”.
(Copyright, Grant Shimmin, 2020)