In the year of our Lord, 707, there were trolls reported in the hills of Banner Bein, those gentle, rocky rises just south of Vergenville. Some sheep and cattle were said to be missing and everyone agreed that it would be ordinary thieves but for two reasons. First, the animal tracks disappeared right where they were taken. This spoke of a powerful enchantment or it suggested that the animals were literally lifted from the ground and carried off. Of course, only trolls could be imagined carrying off a thousand pounds of beef. Second was the matter of the children. Three youngsters and two babies were missing and since there were no gypsies or other strangers around to blame, the accusation naturally fell upon the little ones in general, and trolls in particular because of the issue of the beef and sheep.
There were those Moslems around the king’s palace, but they were discounted because they were hardly remembered. The Lord Ahlmored and his people scrupulously avoided any and all contact with the ordinary people of Amorica. The ambassador was reported to have said that when the time came the people would be converted by the sword readily enough. This did not sit well with the Breton any more than it did with the Franks who felt a man’s soul ought to be able to make its’ own choices. The days when the Romans persecuted the Christians were in the deep past and hardly remembered, and the druids never imposed themselves on the people. For too many centuries the druids had been a natural and unchallenged part of the culture, so they did not have to rule by imposition. True, men like Aden the Convert were making many followers of the old ways uncomfortable, but they were tolerated for the good the Adens of the world did, and for the love they evidently had for all the people. These Moslems, by contrast, apparently waited until they gained the upper hand, and then, at least in those days, it became either convert or die. That rankled a lot of people, but it did not speak for their stealing babies. In fact, the followers of Mohamet strove so hard not to have touch with the people, the people forgot they were there.
So, the common wisdom said trolls in Banner Bein, though Margueritte did not think that sounded exactly right.
Tomberlain went well into his thirteenth year that early summer and a true page for his father. He had duties every day but Wednesday and Sunday. Wednesday got spent at the home of Constantus and Lady Lavinia with his sisters, learning his letters. Constantus was of the old Roman mindset who insisted that Latin was the only proper language in which to read, write and think. He required that Latin alone be spoken in his house, and secretly appreciated the silence when guests came to visit. Lady Lavinia, on the other hand, decided with her husband’s consent and support, to teach Latin to any and all young ladies and gentlemen within reach of her home. Wednesday was the day Tomberlain and Margueritte made the trip, which was two hours each way. And Elsbeth joined them when she got a little older.
Sunday, of course, was the Lord’s Day and Lady Brianna treated it like a Sabbath. She insisted that even the serfs and peasants should rest, though Sir Barth always saw that the necessities were done. Her son, Tomberlain, became another matter. She would not let him do his duties and rather schooled him, with the girls, in prayer and Christian virtues. Often, Aden the Convert or other Christians from among the Breton and Franks would join them on Sunday, and to that end, just across the roadway from the triangle, she had a chapel built. Andrew and John, or maybe James, did most of the building.
Elsbeth, who turned six that summer, got exceptionally bored on Mondays, Tuesdays and, before she was old enough for the Latin, on Wednesdays. She could not do anything about Wednesday, but on Mondays and Tuesdays, Margueritte, who turned ten, got the sheep to take to pasture with her old dog along to help. Sir Barth said he needed the extra hands of the regular shepherds to make up for the damned inconvenience of Sunday, as he called it. Lady Brianna did not mind. She felt her daughter was getting old enough to begin taking some responsibility around the manor, and besides, she spent plenty of her own youth watching sheep for her father. This, however, left Elsbeth rather isolated and alone. The end of the week was fine because that was when the girls were schooled in spinning, sewing, weaving, cooking, music and other arts, such as women did, but the beginning of the week felt lonely for poor Elsbeth.
It did not take long before Elsbeth began to follow her sister to the pasture. Both girls were glad for the company, but Lady Brianna was not happy to see her baby so far from the house at such a young age. She could not stop it, however, short of locking Elsbeth in her room, so in the end she relented. She always sent Maven early with their noon meal, and Maven stayed for several hours, generally sleeping under a tree, until she had to get back to help prepare the evening meal. In this way, Brianna became able to more or less keep an eye on the girls.
On one Monday in August, Elsbeth did not go with her, and Maven did not stay for her usual nap. Apparently Elsbeth, who hated cooking, passionately, was being forced to make an acceptable pie. Margueritte sighed for being alone. She petted her old dog, Ragnar, and he almost woke, and then she counted the sheep for the millionth time. In so doing, however, she noticed a strange sight. An old man waggled toward her, slowly, leaning heavily on a staff of crooked oak wood. Margueritte stood.
At once she saw that the man could not have been taller than four feet. Margueritte, who already stood a good bit over four feet tall at age ten, towered over him, but she stayed respectful all the same, as she had been taught.
When he came near, she saw a man bent over, with a huge, bulbous nose and a white beard that fell almost to the ground. His white eyebrows were so bushy she could barely see his eyes beneath, but those eyes appeared sharp to her and quick to see more than just appearances.
“Good-day old man,” Margueritte said with a small curtsey. “What brings you to the land of Count Bartholomew? Perhaps I can be of help.”
The man looked at her for a moment before he answered. “Don’t slouch,” he said, and immediately Margueritte stood up straight and realized that she had been slouching to be more equal to his height, so as not to offend. “You’re not a simple peasant girl I would say.” The man’s voice was gruff but disguised a sweetness that Margueritte could not explain.
“No, sir,” Margueritte answered honestly. “The Lord Bartholomew is my father. I am Margueritte.”
“Sending his own daughter out as a simple shepherdess?” The man’s question came out more like a statement of judgment.
“Yes, sir,” Margueritte answered. “Mother says it is good to learn responsibility at a young age and to learn to help with all the chores. She, herself tended the sheep when she was young.”
“Brianna, the Breton wife,” the man said, and seemed to know all about it. “But here, my plight is simple enough. My family and I are hungry. Our food is exhausted and there is time yet before the harvest. It has been said Lord Bartholomew and Lady Brianna are generous and kind to help the poor and hungry. It is my hope that your father may help us with enough to see us to harvest.”
“Oh, I am sure he will,” Margueritte said, with a touch of joy and pride in her words. “Never were there more willing and generous folks than my own sweet parents.” The old man nodded, and Margueritte turned ever so slightly to point the way. “There,” she said. “After the meadow, you will come down into a hollow, and after the hollow, you will come to a stream and a grotto in the woods. Pass straight through the grotto in the way you are going and beyond the trees on the other side you will come to the fields of my father. From there you will see the triangle of buildings where the family is at home. Go and ask and say we have spoken if you wish. I am sure…” Margueritte let her voice trail to nothing as she saw the old man waving off her words, and with what she noticed as an exceptionally large and bony hand.
“I have little strength for such a journey. Perhaps if I may have one of your sheep, it will save us. This will be sufficient for our needs.”
“Oh dear.” Margueritte immediately started to count her sheep, though she knew how many were there. “I don’t know.” She started to speak as well, but the old man looked up at her with such longing in his eyes she could hardly say no.
Margueritte looked deeply into those odd, little eyes, and for a moment she saw something Asian about him, strange as that sounded. “You would not be lying to me, would you, Ping?” She called him by name, having no idea where that name came from; but that it was his right name, she was sure, and doubly so when the man spun quickly once around.
“How did you know what I am called? I don’t remember revealing myself.”
Suddenly, Margueritte saw the elderly imp right through his disguise. It frightened her for a moment, but then she knew, like instinct, that the imp could not and would not harm her. “Is my young sight so blind to not know an imp when I see one?” she said. “Stay,” she added, to be sure the imp did not run off immediately.
“But.” Ping looked up at her again with new eyes. His disguise fell away which showed him to be just over three feet tall, with no white hair or eyebrows at all, and certainly they were Asian looking eyes. “B-b-but,” he stuttered.
“I have heard things.” Margueritte pressed her advantage as she felt suddenly, strangely empowered in the presence of this little one. “About trolls at Banner Bein and the stealing of animals and children.”
“What? No, never trolls. Who would steal children? That old way is strictly forbidden by the gods, and though they have all gone over to the other side, we do not forget the rules. And as for the animals, they were all fairly begged.” Ping clamped his mouth closed. He had no intention of admitting anything more.
“No trolls?” Margueritte imagined. “Ogres then able to go about in the daytime.” Ping nodded in spite of himself. “And an imp or two, come up with the Moslems?” Ping kept nodding, but his feet began to back up. “And you are right. I have forbidden the taking and eating of children,” she said, though again she hardly knew what she was saying. She looked at the imp also without knowing what came-up into her eyes, but the imp shrieked, and he did turn, and he ran off as fast as his little old legs could carry him, which proved far faster than any human could run.
Margueritte sat down with a thump beside her dog who barely stirred from his nap. She put her hand tenderly on the beast’s side and wondered what that was all about.