David Russell Mosley
4 June 2014
On the Edge of Elfland
Dear Friends and Family,
As I continue to make slow and steady work reading through my thesis, and as I continue to learn what it is to be a father and a husband, I haven’t the time to write proper letters right now. However, I do not simply wish to give up writing altogether. Therefore, after receiving kind remarks on the first two chapters of my Faërie Romance, I have decided to continue posting chapters, two at a time, every now and then. I have no real aspirations for publishing it, so I don’t mind sharing it here. Also, I firmly believe things ought to be done well, even when done for pleasure (perhaps especially so). Therefore, your comments and criticisms will be taken to heart and I will do my best to amend what is wrong or confusing. With that said, I now present to you the next two chapters. Enjoy, and remember to tell me what you think.
Alfred had been home for little less than a week when one morning, well before sunrise, Alfred’s mother knocked on his bedroom door, ‘Alfred, would be a dear, and go into the wood to fetch me some of the mushrooms for my mushroom soup? It’s rained overnight and there ought to be a fair few to be had.’ Jessica Stidolph’s mushroom soup was famous several miles around Carlisle, particularly for its rarity and freshness. Jessica only used a certain kind of mushroom, and then only fresh picked. Alfred stumbled out of bed, pulling on trousers and a jumper she had knit last winter, it being a chilly morning. Alfred had a quick bite of toast and glug of coffee and went out into the mist.
It is about two miles from Alfred’s home to the edge of Fey Forest, so Alfred had to walk by the old church St Nicholas’, which had burn marks on the stones still from some attack back in the late middle ages or early renaissance. Alfred could never remember. Local history did not interest him too much, and no one could settle on the date anyway. Some said it happened during the reign of Queen Elizabeth when all the old Catholic churches were being burnt down. Others said it was during the time of Oliver Cromwell. Still others said it was a much more ancient and diabolic attack from early in the church’s history. Whatever the truth was, no renovation was allowed since it was deemed a historical landmark.
When Alfred reached the forest’s edge the mist had gotten even worse. ‘It’s going to be damn near impossible to find mushrooms in this mist,’ he said to himself. ‘Oh well, in I go.’ With that he plunged into the wood. The trees were close together in this small wood and blocked out whatever sunlight might be burning the mist off outside of it. Alfred had put his headphones in his ears and was listening to music as he searched, none too carefully. He yawned, another thirty minutes and he would simply give up and tell his mother there were no mushrooms yet. Off in the distance Alfred saw a light. As he walked closer to it, he could tell it was several lights, as if from torches. Wondering what on earth could be going on he decided to walk towards them.
If Alfred had not had his headphones in he would have been surprised to still be hearing music. He would have heard music that could leave no listener unmoved. It was both morose and jovial. It sounded both as if it were the music of another world and yet as if it were the rocks, trees, streams, Nature herself singing this song. But all Alfred could hear was his own music pulsing through his ears as he walked ever closer to the torches, looking like phantoms of red and orange in the mist.
Although Alfred could not hear the merry voices and beautiful music, he could smell the food: roasted meat, delightfully prepared vegetables, and wine. The mist obscured his sight even more as he ventured closer. He was quite near the torches and could almost taste the food when suddenly all the torches vanished. The dark enclosed his senses and he fell.
‘I must have fallen asleep,’ said Alfred out loud as he pulled his headphones out of his ears and stowed them in his pocket. He looked around confused. ‘Well,’ he thought, ‘I must have been tired than I realised this morning. Imagine, me thinking there was a party going on out here in this mist, this early in the morning.’ He looked around for any signs, but all he saw was a fairy ring, mushrooms in a perfect circle with one enormous mushroom directly in the middle.
‘Well, today’s my lucky day,’ Alfred said. ‘Just the mushrooms Mum needs for her soup. I think I’ll grab this big one first.’ Alfred reached down, but as he did so he knocked the top off the mushroom before he even got his hands round it’s base.
‘That’s not a very kind way of introducing yourself, knocking off my hat, Alfred Stidolph.’ Alfred looked around. ‘Down here, my son. My how you humans persist in not seeing what’s right before you. I said down here.’ Alfred could not believe what his eyes beheld. Standing before him not more than two feet off the ground was a brown, dry-looking figure with a sort of green tunic and shoes on. It had almost no nose and its eyes were a loam brown, and it appeared to have no teeth or discernible ears. All Alfred could see at the moment, however, was a talking mushroom without its cap.
‘Well, it seems I will have to re-collect my own hat. Oh, and don’t be worried, my son, you are not dreaming. I promise you I am quite real. My name is––’ The creature had bent over to pick up its cap and Alfred took his chance and ran.
Alfred ran past several other collections of mushrooms, shuddering as he did. ‘I was still half asleep,’ he told himself. ‘I couldn’t find any mushrooms, laid down, and fell asleep dreaming of fires and talking mushrooms. Yes, that’s it. There can’t be such things as talking mushrooms. There just can’t.’ Alfred stopped running when he reached the church. He needed to collect his thoughts before he got back home. He had decided to tell his mother that it was too soon after the rain for there to be any mushrooms yet.
‘Well, no mushroom soup today, then,’ his mother said when he arrived back at home. ‘You look a little put out, why don’t you lay back down.’
‘That’s alright, I’ll go see if Dad needs me in the brewery.’
Alfred went down into the brewery where he found his father next to a large wooden beer barrel. ‘Alfred!’ He shouted. ‘Just in time, my boy. I was about to do a little taste test. I’ve got a new amber ale I want you to try.’ Alfred’s father took great pride in his beer. It was part of what gave The Broken Spoke its charm, all house brewed cask ale. Alfred was lost in thought. He wandered out of the cellar, leaving his father to his brewing revelries and spent the rest of the day in a kind of stupor. He helped his parents in the garden, milked the cows, fed the chickens and served in the inn at night.
Alfred was collecting mugs and pint glasses outside when he saw him. Old Mr Alvin was sitting outside, as he had to nowadays, smoking his pipe. ‘How old is he now?’ Alfred thought to himself. ‘He seemed ancient when I was a little kid.’ Old Mr Alvin was old indeed, probably the oldest member of the village of Carlisle. If you wanted to know anything about the history of Carlisle or Britain in general he was the man to ask. He could tell you stories about Alfred, Merlin, and Gildas; or about Churchill and the War. He noticed Alfred staring at him, took a big puff on his pipe, blew out a glorious smoke ring, tamped his pipe, place back between his teeth and said, ‘Bee in your bonnet, Alfred?’
‘Just a bit distracted today, Mr Alvin.’
‘Yes, I heard you fell asleep out in the woods. Right next to fairy ring, if young Sammy’s eyes didn’t deceive her.’
‘Oh um, would mind not mentioning that to my mum. I was supposed to be collecting mushrooms for her soup––’
‘Your mother makes a damn fine mushroom soup.’
‘Yes, well I was supposed to be collecting mushrooms, but I must have fallen asleep and had a terrible dream. When I woke up I forgot all about the mushrooms and ran straight back home.’
‘Oh,’ said Mr Alvin. Taking a long draw on his pipe, he closed his eyes. Alfred thought he had fallen asleep when suddenly he heard Mr Alvin murmur,
‘And what was your dream about?’
‘Um,’ said Alfred nervously. ‘I can’t really remember, mushrooms I think. A-a talking mushroom.’ Alfred did not want to say too much. He was not sure which frightened him more, the idea that people might hear him, or that Mr Alvin would believe him. Oliver Alvin was well-known for believing the unbelievable. He had a reputation that inspired both a kind of reverence at the breadth of his knowledge and an incredulity at the things he found credulous.
‘Damn,’ swore Mr Alvin.
‘Sorry?’ Alfred replied.
‘My pipe’s gone out. Can you see if your mum or dad have any matches I can borrow?’
‘Sure,’ said Alfred. Not at all unhappy to have the subject changed. Or so he thought at first. When Alfred returned with the matches Mr Alvin was gone. Alfred could not help feeling a little let down. It would have been nice, as well as terrifying, to have Mr Alvin believe he really saw a talking mushroom.
That night, as Alfred drifted off to sleep he really did have a dream, but not about talking mushrooms. He was walking in Fey Forest when he saw the torches again. This time they were much clearer. He could hear the music as well, since he was not wearing headphones in the dream. The music made him feel brave, but sad, as if he was meant to be the last defender of a dying cause. It gave him the kind of courage not to overcome insurmountable odds, but to be defeated with dignity and hope. The music was nothing, however, to the people he saw there. They were pure beauty. Men and women, feasting, laughing, singing, drinking, looking as though the belonged to a medieval tapestry rather than the woods just outside a twenty-first century village. Their clothes were magnificent, bright blues and greens and golds, reds and yellows, no colour seemed missing. Yet the clothes were not ostentatious, nor opulent. They were the colours of the woods themselves in early summer when everything was blossomed.
As Alfred drew nearer he found that he could not quite make out what they were saying. It seemed clear that they spoke English and yet the dream kept him from comprehension. Suddenly the scene changed. The lights of the beautiful people turned blue. Stern, determined looks washed over their merry faces. Weapons were drawn by men and women alike: bows and arrows, swords, clubs, knives, daggers, lances, axes. Horses appeared, as if commanded, but Alfred had seen no one go for them or call for them. Some mounted, others remained standing and they went forward as if for battle. What happened next was a complete mystery for just as the enemy of the beautiful people was about to appear, Alfred awoke.
‘Alfred, dear,’ he could just discern his mother calling, ‘you said you would look for mushrooms again today.’
‘Be right out, Mum,’ he mumbled in reply.
Alfred splashed cold water on his face, dressed and went out into another misty morning. He took his time walking to forest. Whether it was because of the dream or being woken up suddenly he could not decide, but he had left his headphones behind. Alfred stopped to look at the church as the sun was just beginning to rise over its steeple.
‘Have I ever told the story of how this church was nearly burnt down?’ said a familiar voice behind him.
‘Mr Alvin,’ said Alfred both startled and relieved, ‘where did you go yesterday? When I came back to bring you your matches you had gone.’
‘Hmm? Oh, I found some in my pocket and had a sudden urge to take a walk in the forest.’
‘Yes, your story had me interested. I believe you told your mother there were no mushrooms, yes?’
‘Yes,’ Alfred said a little dejectedly. ‘I didn’t want her to think me mad for running scared out of the forest.’
‘Mmhmm. Is that where you’re headed now?’
‘It is. She really wants those mushrooms.’
‘Would you mind if I joined you? I do like a good walk in the morning.’
‘Sure,’ Alfred replied, hoping for an opportunity to discuss his latest dream.
‘You know,’ Alfred said slowly, ‘I don’t think you have ever told me your version of what happened to St Nicholas’s.’
‘Oh! Well then, you are in for a treat.’ Alfred only half-listened while he and Mr Alvin walked closer to the woods. He thought he must be hearing him wrong, for when he would occasionally tune back in he heard words like goblins, trolls, feys. He thought Mr Alvin must have started in on a fairy tale.
‘No, Mr Alvin,’ Alfred was exasperated. ‘I mean the real story of what happened to the church.’ However, as Alfred said this he turned and noticed that Mr Alvin was no longer next to him. He found himself lost in a fog in the forest. ‘Now where did Mr Alvin get to? Where did I get to, for that matter? It wasn’t this foggy when I got up this morning.’ Alfred looked around but did not recognise where he was in the forest. He kept trudging forward, occasionally shouting ‘Mr Alvin!’ thinking the old man had gotten lost in the fog as well.
Alfred walked for what seemed hours, knowing that the right thing to do was to stay in one place and wait for the fog to clear but being unable to do so. It was as if something was drawing him further and further into the forest. Suddenly, as if a veil had been lifted, Alfred saw before him the torchlights, just as he had yesterday morning and in his dream. This time there was no music. He could make out the sounds of voices, but could neither see their owners nor understand them clearly. The tone, however, was clear: anger. It was a stern anger, even a proper anger, but it was anger nonetheless. The whole forest seemed full of it.
Alfred proceeded as quietly as he could, moving ever closer. He began to make out the forms of those speaking. They were the beautiful people from his dream. He was staring in disbelief as he continued to edge closer when suddenly SNAP. Alfred had trodden on a small twig. The torches disappeared in an instant and everything went dark.
Alfred awoke on the ground, once again next to a circle of mushrooms. He was feeling himself to make sure no permanent damage was done when he heard a voice nearby. At first he thought it was Mr Alvin. ‘Thank goodness,’ he said aloud. ‘I thought I would never find you.’
‘I’ve been here the whole time.’
‘Well, at least we’re together again. Maybe now we can find our way out of the blasted forest.’
‘Oh I don’t know about that. Who would watch over my mushrooms?’
In horror did Alfred turn around to see the thing to which the voice belonged. It was the talking mushroom again. ‘B-but––’ he stammered.
‘You’re not going to knock my hat off again, are you, my son?’ asked the mushroom.
Alfred’s head was swimming. A blackness descended on his eyes. He could just hear the voice saying, ‘Goodnight’ as his head hit the ground and Alfred knew no more.
Alfred woke slowly, barely opening his eyes, too afraid of what he might see. Once they were opened, he was relieved by what he saw. He was no longer in the forest. He was in what looked like an old cottage. ‘Good, you’re wake. You gave me a right turn, boy,’ said a voice in the distance. This time, Alfred was quite sure it was Mr Alvin’s voice. This, however, was no immediate reassurance. Alfred’s mind was suddenly flooded with questions, where was he? How did he get there? How long had he been unconscious? All of these questions he put to Mr Alvin.
‘One thing at a time, boy. Here, drink some of this.’ He handed Alfred a glass. It tasted like wine but was earthier and drier than any wine he had had before. Alfred drank quietly. Hoping Mr Alvin would answer all or any of his questions. Mr Alvin went briefly out back, into what Alfred could only assume was his garden. Alfred sat looking around, trying to take in his surroundings. He was on a couch in what looked like the sitting room of an old stone cottage. The walls were lined with bookshelves, there were even books on the mantlepiece over the fireplace. Books of history, philosophy, mythology, fairy tales, medieval manuscripts, old books of theology, even some fiction and children’s stories seemed to be included in this antiquated library.
Whatever it was Mr Alvin had been doing in his garden, he came back in smiling, but there was a concerned look in his eyes. ‘Well, boy, how are you doing?’ was all he said. Alfred’s head began screaming with questions. Again he tried to get Mr Alvin to answer them. The old man seemed reluctant, as if he wished not to say too much or too little. Alfred looked at the old man, pleading for answers with his eyes. ‘It’s time you know,’ Mr Alvin said slowly. At last, Alfred was going to get some answers.
‘Come with me out into the garden, bring your wine,’ he told Alfred. They walked outside, the sun assaulted Alfred’s eyes. ‘Passing out two days in a row isn’t helping you keep your feet, is it?’ said Mr Alvin as Alfred stumbled.
‘I’m fine, just a little weak still.’
‘Well, keep drinking that wine.’ Mr Alvin produced a loaf of bread and the two of them sat out in his garden under the shade of a large weeping willow facing what Alfred assumed was Fey Forest. In the distance Alfred could just make out the mountain rising high above the forest. Mr Alvin produced a pipe, tobacco, and some matches from his various pockets. Puffing slowly he turned to Alfred, ‘It’s all true, boy.’
‘W-what do you mean?’ asked Alfred terrified of the answer.
‘The dreams, the ancient one you’ve met in the forest, the torches, all of it is true. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but it’s true all the same. Faerie is all around us. The world is so much bigger than you’ve dreamt of. It’s like what Hamlet told Horatio, there’s more in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophies.
Look, Alfred, I’ll be honest with you, elves, gnomes, dwarves, goblins, giants, dragons they’re all real. The ones who are good are better than you could ever imagine, but the wicked are darker than anything. Most people live their whole lives thinking Faerie is just another word for imagination or the supernatural. They never get the chance to see. Ah, we’ve been cursed with blindness for so long now. Not that Faerie has ever been easy to see, far from it, but we weren’t meant to be completely ignorant of it. Arthur knew Faerie, this wood was named after his half-sister, you know. Morgana was, well, she was confused she was. Robertus Kirk, MacDonald, Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien, they all understood, they believed in Faerie, even if they infrequently got into it, they knew it was there. You’re lucky, well, maybe that’s the wrong word. You’ve been given a gift, you’ve spent your whole life on the edge of Elfland, as it were, and now you’ve stumbled in.’
Alfred did not believe what he was hearing. Faerie? Elfland? Goblins, dragons, gnomes? No. He lived in a world where science had dispelled all those old beliefs. There was no way this could be true. Alfred was just about to say so when he noticed a ring of mushrooms right next to weeping willow. He let out a shriek he would have normally been ashamed of as suddenly an enormous mushroom from the centre of the circle began walking towards them. It removed its cap and wiped its brow, ‘Told him the truth at last, eh, Oliver? I told you should have done it years ago. He would have believed you and I could have been left out of it.’
‘I know what I’m doing. I’ve been at this a long time, Balthazar.’
‘Of course, sir.’
Alfred was still staring, though the horror he felt at first was beginning to transition to curiosity. Hadn’t he always loved fairy tales and legends when he was a boy? It was at university he began to despise them as a fashionable exercise in popularity. ‘What’s going on? What, or I suppose I should say who are you?’
‘Balthazar Toadstool, historian and mushroom shepherd, which is to say a gnome, at your service.’ The gnome gave a bow.
‘Alfred Stidolph,’ Alfred mumbled out, still somewhat in shock.
‘Gnomes are among the wisest creatures in Faerie, Alfred’ said Mr Alvin. ‘And old Balthazar here is accounted wise even by his own kind.’
‘You do me honour, sir,’ was the gnomes reply.
‘What I really want to know,’ said Alfred, ‘is what the devil is going on?’
‘You’ve been having dreams, haven’t you, my son,’ said Balthasar. ‘Dreams about a wondrous folk in the forest. But your dreams have turned darker, haven’t they? It’s no surprise. Evil never really goes away, we’ll never truly see the end of it in this life. You have been given a gift, my son, the gift of the second sight. All humans can see Faerie, or Elfland as many of us call it. They work at not seeing it. Even you tried not to see it, explaining away your dreams and the two times we have met, but unlike most humans you cannot not see Elfland. More than that, you have dreams of the goings on of Elfland. There’s a darkness brewing, such as we have not known for a long age. It’s been plaguing your world more than our own. All these wars you have been having, the hatred of humans for their brothers and sisters, but Elfland has been left relatively alone. We are the poorer for not having your world interact with ours, we grow static, but we endured in peace. Now, however, the evil plaguing your own world is making its way into ours.
‘The dwarves first alerted us to it. They heard them in the deep recesses of the mountain, digging, coming in from the Elfin King knows where. The dwarves, crafty as they are and even knowing the mountain as well as they do, cannot tell where they are or if they have come out. Your dreams tell us one thing, however, they are coming and they will bring destruction with them when they do.’
Alfred sat in rapt attention. ‘Who is coming?’ he asked, breaking the ominous silence.
‘I’m sorry. Did you just say goblins?’
‘Yes, my son, goblins. Some of the fiercest and most wicked creatures ever to cross the face of the earth.’
‘What are they? I mean, I remember reading about them in books, but they’re usually small mischievous little creatures, lesser demons or imps, awful for sure, but not this menacing.’
‘Yes, well did your books tell you that mushrooms were cared for by gnomes?’
‘Then I would not use them as your guide through Elfland. That’s what I’m for.’
‘Wait, what do you mean? Mr Alvin, what does he mean, he’s my guide through Elfland? If there are goblins in there and they’re as bad as you say, shouldn’t I stay out of it altogether?’
Mr Alvin sighed heavily. Alfred in looking at him began to realise how very old, even careworn, the eccentric old man of Carlisle was. It was as if he was looking at him for the first time and rather than an old man, it was a wizard, a sage, druid bard sitting next to him. ‘Alfred,’ he began slowly, ‘Carlisle sits in a perilous place. While Faerie may be all around us and everywhere, there are some places closer to it than others. As I told you, you are quite lucky, having grown up on the edge of Elfland and being given a glimpse. A glimpse, however, is not all you’ve been destined for.
‘Carlisle, because of its proximity to the major home for elves and dwarves, both the Elfin King and the lesser dwarf king have their thrones in Fey Forest, has often known great beauty and wonder. Alas, it is also known more grief and woe.’
‘And caused more as well,’ said Balthazar quietly.
‘Too true,’ replied Mr Alvin. ‘Alfred, trouble has often come from Elfland and attacked Carlisle, trying to find entrance into the world of men and overthrow it. The goblins especially hate humanity. Do you remember the story I told you about St Nicholas’s?’
‘Only a little. Didn’t you say something about goblins then?’
‘Indeed I did. They tried to burn down the church on Christmas Eve over a thousand years ago. They were beaten back by the villagers, with the help of the faeries, and the flames around the church were extinguished.’
‘Why did they want to burn down the church?’
‘Suffice it to say that they hate humanity and wanted to do them harm. The whole village was inside at the time, as was the custom, and they thought to bring the whole town to ruin. From there they could have spread into the rest of the human world.’
‘Why do they hate us so much? And why do they have enter our world through Carlisle?’
‘Those are complicated questions. Balthazar, would mind answering the boy?’
‘My pleasure. You see Alfred, goblins were not always goblins. Some say they are men mixed with elves who have gone bad. Others that they were elves once, but they turned their back on the Elfin King. Still others say they were dwarves who lost themselves in the mines they worked for the Elfin King and when they finally emerged it was with a burning hatred of the Elfin King. Whatever the truth is, they were not always evil and they did not always look as they do now. The reason they hate humanity is because the Elfin King protects you. It is because of him that goblins and other wicked creatures cannot come into your world unless your civilisation is physically close to our own. Because humans have moved away from the forests and the wilds of the world, even from the beginning, this happens rarely, but there are still pockets. In most places there is still silence, in some evil has won out, but here in Carlisle there is ever a tension. The greater and lesser kingdoms being here means both a greater chance of mutual benefit and a greater chance of mutual harm.’
‘So where do I fit in to all of this?’
Balthazar and Mr Alvin looked to each other and then both turned to look at Alfred. Mr Alvin spoke first, ‘Faerie is always better when connected to humanity. The separation between the two is unnatural. When evil like this comes forward is important for Faerie to find a human with the second sight to help. What your proper role will be, there’s no telling. This is why Balthazar is to be your guide. He will get to know you and determine where your strengths lie. From there, only time will tell what part you will play, but it will be a great one, lad, I can promise you that.’
‘Come along, my son,’ Balthazar said to Alfred.
‘Wait, I’m leaving now? What about my family?’ Alfred exclaimed.
‘There’s no time, boy. The goblins will come and attack the village. If you don’t go into Faerie now, there may be no Carlisle to return to. I know its hard. I had hoped to better prepare you myself, but there we are. Alfred, the goblins are ruthless, their king hates humanity more than most. He comes from a long-lived goblin line and was part of the attack against the village when they tried to burn St Nicholas’s. He will stop at nothing. He’s been biding his time far in the North, for they were banished from England for a thousand years, all that time to foment and plan for his revenge. A young villager had caved in part of his face with a mattock, and since then he has vowed revenge against humanity for the loss of his eye, not to mention a fair few of his teeth. He will have trained his goblins to be ferocious, cruel, loving to give pain. You must go, and now.’
Alfred remembered the music from his dream, he thought of how much he loved his parents, his village. He was confused, about so many things, but one thing was certain, he trusted Mr Alvin, everything he had read about Faerie, all of it incidental, had at least taught him to discern good from evil. He knew evil must be fought, even in the face of defeat, which he hoped it would not come to. Without realising it, he found himself resolved to do whatever he could. He could think of nothing that made him special, that made him worthy, but this too he knew so often essential in fairy tales. It was not about him, but what needed to be done.
‘Alright,’ he said at last, ‘I’ll do it. Lead me where you will Balthazar.’
‘Into the forest then, my son.’
‘Good luck, Alfred,’ called Mr Alvin. ‘The hopes of Faerie and earth rest with you.’
Alfred looked changed, as if the air of Elfland had already begun to flow in him. His walk became more determined, less that of a listless twenty-something, as he entered the forest, being guided by the small gnome, not knowing what his fate would bring him.
David Russell Mosley