Sunday, 13 January 2013

Sir Cobb and the Moon Maiden

Yellow-eye Blackfang screamed with rage and Frederick could hear the monstrous creature's footsteps booming like thunder as the troll gave chase.

All the people of the Hundred Kingdoms know that a wandering knight, of good heart, will do all in his power to rescue a maiden in distress. Rescuing maidens in distress is one of the main requirements common to the popular codes followed by knights of all kinds.

As such the 'rescuing' of 'maidens' who are 'in distress' tends to be universally viewed as a good thing. There has been the odd report of knights interpreting these  rules somewhat broadly. Reading between the lines of certain accounts you can sometimes go as far as to say they may have completely taken the wrong end of the stick.

One day it may be time to tell the tale of 'Sir Macken and the Accidental Slaughter of the Kind Dragon Abducted by the Evil Princess'. That is, perhaps, a tale for a time when one wants to be appalled and amused at the same time. Your narrator is not confident of his capability to pull that off today.

So, instead, we will consider the more traditional tale of 'Sir Cobb and the Moon Maiden'. I am sure that you will find it to be far more suited to the needs of a cold winter day. A day when the cockles (not to mention the other sea-creatures) of the heart are in deepest need of warming.

Sir Cobb was a brave man and your typical knight. Well, mostly your typical Knight. If truth be told he was not as well-heeled as most knights are expected to be. This was mostly due to the unfortunate fact that he had not been born into a class of society where sons generally  grow up to become knights.

Sir Cobb had, in fact, been born rejoicing in the name of Frederick Cobb, the cooper's son. For generations the Cobb family had made barrels in the village of Nether Morphus in the kingdom of Scatterthorne. For all those generations Cobb men had been burly and sweet and earnest in nature.

Until Frederick everyone of the Cobbs had also been humble and realistic in their expectations of life. They made barrels, they sold barrels, they lived, married, had sons who grew up to make barrels and so the world turned.

Nathaniel Cobb, Frederick's father, had not made many mistakes in his life. One of the few you could pick out was his courtship of Lorna Archer. a woman that most people agreed was somewhat above his station. She was certainly bright and beautiful.  Neither of these are reasons for a cooper to turn away from asking for a woman's hand in marriage, rather the reverse. Nathaniel Cobb was a cooper, not a fool. So he had married Lorna Archer.

Little Frederick had been a delight to one and all when he had been born in the second year of Nathaniel and Lorna's happy marriage. He had remained a delight until the moment that he had become mobile, at which time the problems had started.

It was not that Frederick was a bad child, indeed he had inherited the sweet, happy and earnest nature of all Cobb men. The problem was that he had inherited his mother's imagination along with her desire to be helpful. Where he had picked up complete disregard for the opinions of others on the way a life should be lived is a matter still hotly debated.

From the time he first crawled Frederick was determined to help people, whether they wanted his help or not. Further, whether he was, in fact, capable of helping them or not. Frederick would see a loaf in a tin on a table and know that loaves needed to be turned out of tins. He would decide that someone had clearly forgotten this vital step in the process. He would determine that, despite the fact that the surface of the table was a foot above his head, he would be the one to complete the job. He would pull the tablecloth, he would have a hot loaf tin containing a cooling loaf land upon his head. He would sit and cry. The loaf would be ruined.

And so it went on.

He would terrorise cats that wanted to sleep upon a warm slate roof on a sunny day by throwing rocks at them. When quizzed about this obnoxious behaviour he would explain.  He had _tried_ to call out for the stranded kitty to leap into his arms but that the poor things were just too scared. At least, they were once Frederick had thrown a few well-intentioned gravel chips in their direction.

He was the kind of child who would help an old woman to cross the road even if the old woman had started out on entirely the correct side of the road. He loved to help but he couldn't get the hang of listening. His early childhood was a trial only made worse by the fact that no person could possibly have meant better.

Nathaniel and Lorna insisted that Frederick would 'grow out' of his unfortunate habits as he came to manhood. That tender hope was dashed upon the day in Frederick's fourteenth year that a passing messenger left a parcel at the Cobb's home. The package had arrived from: "The Academie of Home Knighthoode". A helpful stamp informed the world that this organisation had been: "Est. Year of the Red-Tailed Sand Lizard in the City of Kree".

Upon returning from the lopping down trees in the forest Frederick was asked to explain himself. He said that he had given the matter some thought. He had determined that the life of a cooper was not for him, so he had taken the decision to become a knight.

A long and intense discussion followed, taking the whole family far past sunset and into the night. On the one side of the discussion Frederick had been intractable, he would be a knight though the world should call him a fool. On the other side was everyone except his mother who told him that a fool was precisely what he would make of himself.

Lorna, who loved her son and his wayward imagination, managed somehow to work a compromise. She somehow managed to convince Nathaniel that all Frederick needed was 'an outlet'. She pointed to his past misadventures and promised that this would be an end to those problems.

Cousin John was to take over the tree cutting duties. Younger brother Benjamin was to begin helping Nathaniel in the cooper's yard. Frederick had seven years in which to make his fortune as a knight. If he had not become a figure of heroism and renown within that period he was to return to Nether Morphus to settle down. Or, as his father had put it, "stop being such a block head little idiot".

Frederick found himself filled with delight at the prospect of this opportunity. His younger brothers had started a sweepstake among the children of the village. They all took bets on how long Frederick's grand adventure would last before he returned to Cobb Bottom. Everyone believed that he would return sad and defeated, humbled by the experience.

The kit Frederick had received contained within it a selection of shoddy paraphernalia. Amongst the items  were: a silly tin hat sprouting a floppy yellow plume, a tin breastplate, a tin shield,and a blunt tin short sword. Nestled in amongst this tat was an endorsement printed on thin parchment. It read: 'It is the size of a man's heart, not the build quality* of his equipment, that marks him out as a knight'. On the reverse side was printed: '*Nor, for that matter, its suitability for use in combat'.

Frederick took this advice to heart. He donned his knightly attire and strode forth from Nether Morphus to find his fortune. The sun sank below the horizon before long. Frederick found himself, for the first time, away from his bed at night, forced to find shelter on an empty road. In that moment he began to understand a little of the hardship that knights were bound to face on a daily basis.

Undaunted by goose-flesh or chattering teeth, Frederick curled up in a ball, attempting to sleep in a ditch. He did not think he would achieve sleep and so awoke in a state of confusion some time later. He awoke to the sound of two voices nearby, involved in a conversation that he had not heard the start of.

"Look at it, how can it be alive? It has no blanket, it's in a ditch, only dead things lie in ditches," the first voice said.

"Very well then, you go and steal its hat," the second voice said.

"Don't think that I won't," the first one said. "Besides, it's not theft, its salvage. Dead things don't need no hats."

"I don't care what you call it. You're making excuses and arguments, fussing and fretting. I know you're too scared to do anything," the second voice mocked the first.

"Am not."

"Are too."

"Am not."

"Are too."

"Am not."

"Are are are."

"Not not not."

Frederick quickly reached his limit. He sat bolt upright to look at the two argumentative creatures who were thinking of stealing his hat.

"It is not a hat, it is a knightly helm!" he proclaimed. "And I am not dead. I am Sir Cobb of Nether Morphus!"

The two tiny glowing men stood at the lip of the ditch yelped in fear and surprise. They embraced one another at the sound of Sir Cobb's voice. One closed his eyes, refusing to look at the enormous creature they had disturbed.

Both creatures were dressed as fine gentlemen of court. Resplendent in white breeches and white jackets that sparkled in the moonlight. Underneath they wore fine white waistcoats and white smocks next to their pale skin. Both had white stockings, white shoes and white wigs. They both had white faces. They both glowed, emanating a soft, clear light that illuminated the grass around them turning it black and silver.

"Now, who are you two, considering theft from a knight on a dark road?" Frederick demanded.

"Nothing," one of the little men quavered. "Not a thing that a mighty hero like yourself should worry about, milord. We are just two lost and wandering stars, trying to make our way in the world without a mistress to keep us safe."

"You are stars?" Frederick asked. "Then how comes it that you are not in the sky, shining above? For this is your time."

"Why, did I not say," the little star replied. "We have no mistress and so we must wander until she finds a release from her imprisonment within the deep, dark woods of Piteous Woe."

Frederick, being a part-time woodcutter, knew well of the woods of Piteous Woe. The tree trunks there were hard as granite, you would not find wood as easily as broken axe-heads in that cursed place. The thought that there could be a knightly quest so close to his own home struck Frederick as more lucky than somewhat unlikely. So he did not question.

"Your mistress," Frederick said to the star as if he was not in the least bit interested, "an old crone is she? I expect she must be."

"Oh no, milord," the star replied. "She is young and beautiful, a moon maiden she is, sir. A kinder and more elegant mistress a star sylph could not hope to attend."

"And she's in prison," Frederick said, still aloof. "She did something wrong, I take it."

"The heavens forfend!" the star sylph replied. "Our mistress did no more than catch the eye of a despicable troll,  Yellow-eye Blackfang. He drugged her to sleep and stole her away to be his pet, a caged bird. A terrible fate, she will surely not live more than a week or two in his clutches and then... and then..."

Both of the little men sat on the lip of the ditch and began to cry. Copious floods of tears traced their sparkling lines over their ivory cheeks.

"What?" Frederick asked. "What should happen if she dies?"

"We shall surely die as well!" the star sylph wailed and the two little men sobbed all the harder.

"Well then," Frederick said, all pretence that he was not intrigued and enthused disappearing. "It is fortunate that you should have met, er," he stopped himself. Remembering the manual he had read in his Home Knighthood Starter Kit he corrected himself:

"I mean," he continued. "Tis fortunate indeed that thou shouldst have encountered one of brave heart and sharp, uh, steel such as this one... st." He wasn't entirely confident on the last 'st' but he thought it was better to be safe than sorry in the usage of such things.

Frederick stood, displaying his tin armour with pride. He  declared: "I am Sir Cobb of Nether Morphus and, yea, I shall liberate the moon maiden. For such is my purpose in this life and such is the goal of a heart that beats true."

For a moment he thought he had overdone it. Then the sounds of two sets of tiny hands applauding enthusiastically told him that he had pitched his speech at the right level.

"I must strike out, immediately, for the woods of Piteous Woe. I will return to this place with the moon maiden. By this deed shall ye know me."

"Oh bravo," said the star sylph Frederick had so terrified five minutes ago.

"Indeed, worthy sirrah," the other added. They were both beaming brightly, enthralled at Frederick's fine words.

Frederick toyed with the idea of declaiming further but decided that less was probably more in this case. He, instead, stepped from the ditch and struck out in the direction that he believed that the woods of Piteous Woe should lie.

It didn't take Frederick long to realise that it was far too dark for him to find the woods without help. So he had to return, somewhat sheepishly, to the ditch.

"Er," he said in a manner that he did not find in the least knightly. "Could you possibly light my way? The night is a little dark and my eyes are not accustomed to it."

The two star sylphs exchanged a glance.

"You want us to..." the first star sylph was so appalled at the thought running through his mind he could not bring himself to complete it.

"...into the woods..." the second breathed, beside himself with terror once more.

"...the woods of Piteous Woe?" the first completed the thought in piecemeal.

Frederick believed that the two little men shuddered.

"But, I will find my own way when we reach the troll, " Frederick said, pleading. "I must protect the weak, but I can only do so if I am shown the way. I promise no harm will come to you."

"Well... alright," the first star sylph said, although the words appeared to limp out of his mouth all unsure of themselves.

"But if you are wrong and harm does come to us we shall complain," the other insisted.

"We shall complain in... in... in no uncertain terms," the first star sylph backed up his companion.

"You must be quite certain," the second agreed.

"Our terms must be certain indeed," the first confirmed.

"Most certain," the second concluded. With that warning in place they lifted from the ground and flew around Frederick's head.

"Come on," the first called back. "We should be about this business for dawn is on its way."

The little man had not lied. For as they made their way over the gnarled and twisted roots of the cold trees of the woods of Piteous Woe a weak, grey light came into the sky. By the time they had found the cave of the hideous troll Yellow-eye Blackfang a bitter, misty dawn had come to this melancholy place.

"Here we are," the second star sylph said, landing in a tree, stretching and yawning.

"And not a moment too soon," the first star sylph agreed, joining his brother and lying on his side.

"Indeed, so... sleepy..." the second said.

"Time for..." but the first never completed his sentence, for he had fallen into a deep sleep.

Frederick was on his own.

Now that he was stood on the dark, hard earth outside the inky maw of a grey, forbidding cave. Now that he found himself wreathed in strong odours of blood and rotten things. Frederick understood a little better why it was knights were held in such high regard. No ordinary man would choose to come to this place. No mere cooper would face off against a hideous troll in the hopes of rescuing a beautiful maiden.

Frederick had to admit to some mild concern about where it was his path had lead him. Still, this was the life he had chosen and so he strode forth towards the cave mouth setting his jaw with determination.

In the oppressive silence of the dawn the first thing Frederick noticed was that his breastplate was clanking. The second thing he noticed was that his helmet pinched his head, which was quite distracting. The third thing he noticed was that the handle of his tin shield was loose making it awkward to hold. The fourth thing he noticed was that his tin sword would probably not do much to wound a troll.

He stopped in the clearing, still ten paces from the cave mouth, and removed all of his knightly garb. Focus and stealth were likely to be more use to him than any number of items forged out of tin.

As Frederick reached the cave's entrance he heard the snarling bass rumble of a mighty snore. Frederick thought he'd once heard that trolls always slept until noon, being lazy and ignorant. Heartened at this half-forgotten piece of knowledge he crept quietly into the cave.

It was only when he had ventured deep into the pitch blackness, feeling his way along the wall, that he stopped to reconsider. Was that thing about trolls sleeping till noon something he had heard? Or was it, rather, something he had just made up about five minutes ago?

He had the distinct feeling that it might well have been the latter. The snoring was louder now, Frederick began to feel that maybe his father had been right, maybe he was an idiot. He was an idiot who had made a promise to two star sylphs who would die without his help, however, so he crept on a few more paces.

Frederick was forced to freeze put when the snoring rhythm suddenly caught mid snore. A worrying silence descended upon the cave. Now Frederick was absolutely certain that the only thing he had ever heard about trolls was that they were light sleepers. That and possibly that they had exceptional hearing.

Then there was the noise of a loud and sticky splutter. The snoring resumed much as it had been before. Frederick told his mind to stop making him think he had heard things when, in actual fact, he was just making them up on the spot.

Cross with his own brain Frederick continued to feel his way through the darkness. A little futher on Frederick's outstretched fingers encountered something unusual. They brushed against an object that was not the rough surface of the rock walls. It was solid and cold, it felt as if it was not natural but forged, an item, a picture frame. This was something that the troll had no doubt stolen from one of his victims.

Frederick moved his fingers over the frame and onto the cool glass surface of the picture. He ran his left hand forward and it to join his right.

"No!" a sharp voice cried, cutting through the silence. "I will not have you paw me with those sticky digits you disgusting beast!"

The snoring stopped again. This stoppage continued on and on, seeming in Frederick's mind to last forever.

"What is happening?" rumbled a deep, rough voice. "Who disturbs my sleep."

"You can force me to sing. yYou can make me provide you with light in the darkness but do not presume to touch my prison with those rough and brutish hands!" said a voice behind the glass of the picture frame.

"Moon girl glow!" bellowed Yellow-eye Blackfang. "Glow! Glow!"

Suddenly the darkness of the cave was filled with a gentle silver-blue light. Frederick found himself looking into the icy blue eyes of the prettiest silver-skinned girl he had ever seen in his life. He didn't have time to drink in her beauty. Instead he was forced to look round to see the gigantic, dirty, hairy, lumpy form of the troll pulling itself upright. The troll emerged from a mass of greasy, smelly animal skins, some of which still had the heads attached.

"Oh..." Frederick said. "Dear."

"Thief!" Yellow-eye shouted setting his shoulder towards Frederick.

Frederick had no other choice. He lifted the silver frame from its hook on the wall and ran for the cave entrance.

For his part Yellow-eye Blackfang screamed with rage. Frederick could hear the monstrous creature's footsteps. They boomed like thunder, as the troll gave chase.

"Don't worry," Frederick said to the moon maiden. "I've come to rescue you."

"I see," the moon maiden said. "So this is all going to plan?"

"Uh," Frederick said.

"You didn't have a plan, did you?" the moon maiden asked.

"Ah." Frederick was glad that he was out of breath from running. The shame of admitting that planning had not been a part of Operation Moon Maiden Rescue would have overwhelmed him.

"Boys," the moon maiden said, tutting. "Close your eyes dummy."

"Um," Frederick said.

"Now!" the moon maiden said crossly.

Frederick closed his eyes.

Even through closed eyelids Frederick could discern the bright blue light that followed. It bursting out of the maiden's prison so fierce it sizzled. He heard Yellow-eye Blackfang cry out in pain and confusion.

The light faded, so Frederick opened his eyes. The cave entrance was only a short distance and from somewhere he pulled a little extra strength.

"I'm blind!" the troll hollered. There were a few more thundering footsteps and then a thump as the clumsy giant collided with something.

"Ow! I can't see! I can't see!" it cried. "Thief, I will find you and when I do I will make soup from your guts and gravy from your brains! You will regret the day you stole from Yellow-eye Blackfang."

The troll's protestations faded as Frederick left the cave to run for his life across the clearing.

"I got her!" he cried out in a most un-Knightly fashion to the star sylphs. He saw the two little men awake and they flew down from the tree to flutter beside Frederick's head.

"See, mistress," one said to the moon maiden. "We said we would find someone to rescue you."

"And this is the best you could do," the moon maiden asked with a raised eyebrow that signalled she was not in the least bit impressed.

"I rescued you, didn't I?" Frederick protested as they ran through the woods.

"Barely," the moon maiden conceded.

"It, er, well, I didn't think it was too bad for my first quest," Frederick objected. "I mean, I got the job done."

"And what about when Yellow-eye Blackfang comes looking for revenge?" the moon maiden asked.

"Um, I shall, deal with that... at the time," Frederick said.

The moon maiden smiled at that.

"You," she said to Frederick. "Are a fool, but you are a brave one."

And so the brave fool, the moon maiden and her two star sylphs ran from the woods of Piteous Woe.

When they had run far enough Frederick broke the surface of the magic mirror in which the moon maiden had been imprisoned. To thank him for his service the moon maiden rewarded him with a moon-blade. It was a short sword that would bite deeply against the dark and vile things of the night.

Frederick went on his way, light four items of tin armour. He found himself enriched by adventure, excitement, honour and a pretty nifty gift from a rescued maiden.

Next time, he decided as he continued on his way, he would definitely have to devote more thought to a plan.

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