A Long-extended Party presents Three Picnics, a short story featuring two new heroes in Mustering of the Rohirrim, the upcoming community-created Adventure Pack in the Oaths of the Rohirrim cycle. Written by John Leo, ALeP Lead Storyteller.
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Osbera was foraging. With her great claws she scraped bark from the trunk of a willow tree. She could smell the sweet scent of honey, great amber-colored globs of it. Wild honey was the better; her father’s apiaries yielded nothing like what Osbera found in the dim hollows of Wilderland maples, apple-dappled golden pastures, and this, the gorgeous, wide trunk of a willow, shaded as it was by a lattice of vast spindly branches, the bees dancing, dangling, drifting like blossoms on the wind. Osbera spotted a break in the tree where it had long been split by lightning, now packed with honeycomb.
“There it is,” she said. With one huge paw, she reached in. The sweet matter festooned between her claws and she licked it, her snout pulled into something resembling a sleepy smile. The taste was overwhelming. A true delight which ran from the tops of her ears to the pads of her feet. “Thank you jollybees,” she said. “Thank you gentlebees. Ho ho, I should sing my jollybee song in thanks.” And in her deep bearish voice, she sang.
Ho ho jollybees, sweet dancing butterbees!
Lay-zee, hay-zee, Carrock in the summer bees!
Jollybees buzz buzz, jollybees sing!
Part them from their honey, and the jollybees sting!
“I like your song,” said the stranger.
Osbera snapped to attention. In all her reverie, she had not heard the woman slowing her horsecart. Osbera blushed. The traveler was a pretty creature, clad in furs, with an axe leaned in the seat next to her.
“Who are you and what do you want?” said Osbera. She drew herself up to her full height. Her muzzle glistened with sticky honey and a dusting of yellow pollen.
“I’m Rowan,” said the woman. “I am carrying supplies in my cart. I was riding through when I heard your song. I thought it was so lovely I had to stop and listen.”
“Supplies for what?” said the bear, appearing flustered. “And for whom? And whence?”
“Supplies for building,” said Rowan. She nodded toward the axe. “My family has lived a long time at the forest’s edge. There are spiders there in Mirkwood, you know, and fell wolves, more and more each day. We’re making a palisade to keep them out.”
“Bears are not good conversationalists,” said Osbera. “You ought not talk to them. For they are fearsome and dislike companionship.”
“Very well,” said Rowan. “I’ll be going.” She raised the reins and clicked her tongue.
“Wait,” said Osbera. She reached out.
That was the day of their first picnic. It was a day of buttered bread and jammy biscuits with fresh honey from the willow tree. It was the day Osbera revealed her other form, that of a handsome woman. Like Rowan, but unlike her too. A few years older perhaps, and not as fair. Rowan sang the songs of the Woodmen: grim, unrhyming couplets. “For while we’re chopping,” she said. “It makes a game of passing time. When one of us finishes with a word, the other has to start the next line with it. It’s good fun.” She sang, and her voice hung on the air and Osbera, who once had supposed her own heart more a chunk of stone or craggy bluff incapable of wonder, was transfixed.
Stow the pipe and sharpen hatchet,
Lo, the forest calls to thee.
Thee, the ax-man dark and glow’ring,
Split the sun through branch of pine.
Pine, my darling, for thy lovely.
Pine for her gentle sleeping sigh.
As she sang, Rowan’s gaze lingered upon Osbera. The bear-maiden felt it. Deep within, a sleeping thing awakened.
The second picnic was at the end of summer. They shared buckleberries and salt butter and fig tarts Rowan had wrapped in a handkerchief. “They’re still hot,” said Rowan, ladling honey from a clay vessel.
They sat in the meadow, on opposite edges of a pale, fraying quilt. “I’m embarrassed,” said Rowan. “I haven’t got a better blanket. This is my own, from my bed at home. I lied to my grandmother. I told her it gets cold on the road.”
“I don’t have a gran,” said Osbera between bites. “Least I don’t think so. Don’t even have a mum. I’ve heard of mums, though. They seem alright.”
“Do you like the tarts?” said Rowan.
“Magnificent,” said Osbera. “You baked them yourself? I should like to learn to bake like this.”
“I’ll teach you,” said Rowan. “Some day perhaps you’ll journey back into the forest with me and hop over the palisade. It will be much more convenient than meeting me at the roadside.”
“Some day,” said Osbera. She winced. “My father wouldn’t like it.”
“I’ve heard of him,” said Rowan. “All the hunters think he’s a great beast.”
They spoke no more about it. Instead they chewed in silence. They looked at one another. Each seemed to admire what she saw. Osbera took a gulp of mead from a blown glass bottle in a wicker sling. Rowan picked a flower and yanked the petals, one by one, letting each fall away. “Come sit beside me,” she said.
Up close she was even prettier. Round blue eyes. Fair hair. Fair skin. Osbera kissed her. It was simple. It was strange. She felt many things. She felt nothing at all.
They were interrupted, of course, by a troll. A huge grimy thing clad in goat hides, its two heads a mismatch of hideous features: mossy green teeth, extra noses, smirking purple lips.
“Well well,” said the first head. “Them’s a-kissin.”
“S’right,” said the second. “S’a moment of tenderness, innit.”
“Downright lovable, Nigel.”
“Makes the heart tremble, Rufus.”
“S’pose we squash ‘em up, Rufus. Eat ‘em.”
“I like your thinking, Nigel. I say we gobble ‘em up.”
“Did the heads switch names?” said Rowan, hefting her axe.
Osbera snarled. By the time she fell upon the troll she was a whirl of fur and claw, a fell howling thing. But Rowan would not be left behind, for she dashed between the legs of the troll, swinging her hatchet merrily, as if the thigh were the trunk of a rotted old tree. Chop and claw, rend and rally.
When the troll fell upon the earth, the women laughed. They laughed so they did not have to speak of what had happened between them. They laughed because they did not need to.
Osbera waited by the roadside at the appointed time. Rowan was late. She paced, her heavy paws leaving wide prints in the mud. The autumn snows had begun and all was gray and cold. Shifting her weight, she thought of scratching her back against the willow tree. Of visiting the sleeping jollybees in their torpor. “No,” she said. “I shall hum a little song. By the time Rowan gets here it may be good enough to sing for her. My darling, my darling, I wait by the road – no, no, that shan’t do.” She muttered and paced, and the snow fell from on high, and the dark woods loomed in the distance.
It was some time before Osbera heard the wagon wheels clattering around the bend. “Yah! Yah!” called Rowan, her pony heaving and snorting in the cold. She skidded the cart to a halt and Osbera broke into a run to meet her. “It’s the village!” said Rowan. “The palisade’s breaking. Goblins battering at the gates. I barely got through!”
“Let me up,” said Osbera. “I can help.”
The village at the edge of the forest remembers well the Battle at the Gate. They still tell the children of Rowan the Axmaid, who fought side by side with a she-bear. And such a bear she was! Holding the breach with fang and claw while the woodmen rained stones upon the screaming goblins of the mountain with their crooked grins and crooked bows. Yes, the woodmen still remember the battle, and the aftermath too, when the she-bear lumbered into the woods with a dozen arrows in her side. They remember her well, and for generations after the battle they called the village’s south entrance She-bear Passage. The children, it is said, still play Bear and Goblins – one little child roaring and laughing, chasing the others. To this day they remember it, at least in the half-faded way Men remember great happenings long past.
The third picnic began that very evening. When the palisade had been patched and the torches lit and Osbera lay beneath a mulberry bush in a clearing outside the village. It began when Rowan knelt at her side, where she broke the arrowshafts and washed the wounds with clean water and whispered promises into Osbera’s ear. It began when she plucked berries from the bush and fed them to her lover, massaging her muzzle to help her chew. It began when Rowan covered Osbera’s legs and chest with a faded, fraying quilt from her own bed.
At times when Osbera could speak, they sang together in the way of the woodmen, their voices muffled and quiet and strained with tearfulness. Rowan began:
Pine, my darling, for thy lovely.
Pine for her gentle sleeping sigh.
Sigh, for myst’ry, sigh for starlight.
Sigh for the shapely tree’s embrace.
On they sang, their song stretching as long as the night, as long as the morning, on and on. The music paused at times. It paused the next day when Osbera walked as a woman, arm in arm with Rowan, bandaged and battered, through the south gate to the village. It paused in moments of conflict, of argument, of alarm. But always the song returned. Often they sang it on evening patrols about the palisade, when Osbera walked as a she-bear and growled along. Often they sang in their cart to pass the time and keep out the cold, Osbera wrapped in the fraying, faded quilt. And often they sang by candlelight in their little home where Osbera walked as she pleased and no one else could hear.