Iofan stands atop a short plank, just wide enough for him to comfortably stand, and just tall enough to raise him above a small crowd of three children who are cheering him on. He has a bow in hand, and aims at the tree some distance away. With every shot he takes, the children cheer, for every one hits its mark on the tree.
Gryffudd |A man better dressed than the merchants and dock-workers watched, idly scraping the skin off an apple with his knife. He chuckled as the children cheered, but his eye was on the halfling's form. After a bit he pushed himself off his lean-post and sauntered over, watching his aim from the other side.
Iofan readies to make one final shot, but sees the stranger out of the corner of his eye. He turns his aim from the broad tree to a pole of the distant pavilion, a farther target and a more dangerous one, for its proximity to people. But Iofan's aim was true, and the crude arrow stuck in the wood of the pole. The children cheered louder than ever, and Iofan proudly leaned on his bow.
Gryffudd made a show of his approval, nodding and even raising a hand to visor his eyes as he spotted in which wood the arrow had sunk. He looked at the hobbit a moment, then held out his hand. "May I?"
Iofan smiled at the stranger and held out his bow. "Sure, if ye've got the arrows. My quiver's empty." He looks at the children who are watching the exchange with interest. "Or I could send one of them."
Gryffudd bowed his head as he accepted the bow, slipping his knife back into its sheath and the half-peeled apple into his pouch. The same hand drew out a few copper and raised it towards the children. "Whoever's quick enough to take these from me first and fetch a pair of practice arrows from the Supplier." He motioned his head to the stall he'd just come from. "You can keep the rest."
Iofan jumped down from the pole on which he stood and patted the top of it. "Would ye like the perch, or are ye more comfortable on broader land?"
Gryffudd smiled as the children scrambled to fetch the coins from his hand and hurry off to buy the arrows. His chuckle echoed the fervor of the children's little feet bounding across the wooden dock. "I do not think I could fit both my boots on that plank, let alone balance on them, but thank you." He kept his promise and accepted the arrows from the children when they returned. "Name the target?"
Iofan crossed his arms and looked into the distance. "Well, I won't tell ye to do anything that I haven't already done. Hit the tree if ye want to warm up, it's a broad target. Hit the pole of the pavilion if ye're ready for a challenge." He leaned his elbows on the pole in front of him, and prepared to watch the arrows fly.
Gryffudd lined up his feet and took the grip in his left hand. He glanced out the corner of his eye to make sure the children watched, then winked so only the halfling could see. He took aim at the farthest tree—where the town gave way to swamp—nocked his arrow and drew. When his hand, string, and fletching reached his chin, he sneezed so hard his hand slipped from the string. The arrow arced up and plopped pitifully into the water not three feet away.
Iofan laughed, and the children joined in. "It's alright, stranger!" he said, as his giggling died down. "It's a hobbit bow. Many of ye big folk are allergic, I hear!" He laughs again at his jest, but motions forward with his hand. "Go on, try again. Although I still think warming up might be a good idea."
Gryffudd chuckled, feigning embarrassment enough to fool at least the children. "I think I have struck one too many arrows in my pride this evening." He handed the bow back, bowing his head in thanks, and offered the arrow as if it were his prize. "I concede to you."
Iofan shrugged and took back his bow, and then grabbed the arrows and put them in his quiver. "It was honorably done, noble stranger!" he said, bowing after he took the items. "It's not the worst shot I've seen in these parts!" He smiles at his jest. "I can tell yer not from around here, anyway. Who are ye, and why are ye here?"
Gryffudd |The fun over, the children scampered off to spend the coin they'd earned. Gryffudd watched them go with fondness, but he turned back to the halfling with an expression that took him more seriously. "My name is Gryffudd Ap Glyndwr of the Eryr-lûth. Our clan claims the lands south and east of here. You..." he said with some amusement, "...appear similarly out of place."
Iofan smiled widely, and leaned on the pole, nearly his height. "Astute, Master Gryffudd! I arrived here not a month ago, and these people have been kind enough to give me a place to stay for the time being. I'm Iofan, Iofan Madcorf of Maur Tulhau. It is a pleasure!"
Gryffudd 's eyes narrowed at the jest, but he grinned all the same. "Well met, Iofan Madcorf, and welcome to the Land of Hills."
Iofan bowed again, "Well met, and I thank ye for the welcome! Ye folk are a good deal friendlier than I had heard back home. We're suspicious of the big folk, though we've traded our goods with ye and speak yer language."
Gryffudd nodded to the bog-folk as they packed away their goods and closed their stalls to open them another day. "There are...pockets of friendliness. I am surprised you made it this far south, truthfully, without encountering some troubles..." He trailed off, glancing over the thatched huts at the hills that haloed Avardin.
Iofan paid no mind to the merchants as they moved about, although he would nod at them if they greeted him. "Oh, I did encounter some troubles. Did ye know that there's a few waterfalls not too far north on this river? I didn't, not until my boat was no longer beneath me!" He, once again, laughed at his own jest.
Gryffudd 's eyebrows raised, curling his wrinkles. "It is a blessing you made it this far, with or without a boat." He sized the hobbit up. "Most would panic and drown at the first sight of one."
Iofan nodded and seemed to look past him. "Aye, no drownin' on my part... I come from a family of boaters! Our home lies near a small pond, and we row out to its middle every now and again." He pauses for a moment and looks down, scratching the back of his head.
Gryffudd caught the slip—he'd made the same mistake of tone himself before. The present tense, far from loved ones, could be telling. He would not suggest shame by calling attention to it. "My people live on the cliffs overlooking the River Isen, yet few of them are swimmers."
Iofan nods, and regains his composure. "Aye, we may be boaters, but few of us are swimmers as well. I can't swim myself. Luckily the Avanc-lûth here seem a bit better at it than I."
Gryffudd nodded at the village its folk had built on stilts. "They have to be, settling here. Truly, this swamp is their greatest defense. Stronger clans have met evil fates drowning in the mire on long marches into the bog."
Iofan smiled, and patted the pole next to him. "Aye, it's a marvel, really. They are an impressive people." He pauses for a moment, looking down at the wooden planks below them, and the water beneath, which he could see through the cracks. "Tell me, Gryffudd, what's your home like?"
Gryffudd chuckled. "Different," he pronounced in a sharp, cheerful tone. "Quite different. There, our foes across the river do not allow us boats. That doesn't stop us from building them, though." He winked.
Iofan smiled and nodded. "Aye, ye don't seem the type to back down. But who are these foes across the river? Are they Draig-lûth?"
Gryffudd caught his surprise before it flashed across his cheeks. "No...the Draig-lûth share our hills this side of the Isen. There is a different foe that hides on its other side. They think it protects them." He drew his shoulders up and said firmly, "It does not."
Iofan furrowed his brow and tilted his head. "We know the Draig-lûth up north, though I've come to understand their reach is vast. But who lies across the river, then? Giants? Bugan? Gwiber?"
Gryffudd sneered, the name bitter in his mouth. "Forgoil." He drew his heavy arms across his chest. The prince's chain that singled him out as the emissary to his town rang as it was jostled. He frowned. "Iofan...I should like to take council with you, if you would accept. I am eager to hear news of the Draig-lûth's activities north of the Lich. In exchange I will tell you all about our enemy to the East."
Iofan nodded solemnly. "I accept, though I do not know much. We used to trade with the Uch-lûth in Lhanuch, though we haven't for some time, and that was where we got the most of our news. But nevertheless I will tell you what I know."
Gryffudd 's shoulders relaxed a little, but he still held his crossed arms firmly against his jerkin. "I would drive you back to the Gloomglens with boredom if I told you all I know of our forgoil foes, but I will answer any questions you have."
Iofan nodded, his arms crossed, and he began his short cascade of information: "The Draig-lûth of Enedwaith live a village called Gwâl Draig, near the entrance to the great Coomb in the mountains, south of the water and east of the road. Their Brenin is called Heilun. I saw him with my own eyes when I was younger; they had heard tell of us living in the Gloomglens, though they knew not where Maur Tulhau was. After that, we kept it a secret from all the big folk, even the Uch-lûth traders. From them we got more information: the Draig-lûth would attack them, every now and again, and steal their cattle. We haven't seen the Uch-lûth in some time, though, so I can't say anything of more recent events."
Gryffudd furrowed his brow, upsetting his already deep wrinkles. "Their reach is long indeed..." He looked a little disappointed that the news was vague and unfresh, but he'd made meals out of meager scraps before. "The Forgoil are not like our dragon-cousins. They do not distinguish between one clan and the next. To them, all of us are vermin, and they would drive us into the sea at the ends of their brutal spears if we did not stand against them, as we do, and as we have done for five-hundred years. For that was when they came with allies more numerous than us and drove us from our lands." Bitterness flooded his tone, and the longer he spoke the more his gaze retreated behind a shield of dull sheen.
Iofan sighed, and looked with sympathy for Gryffudd and his people. He let the silence brew a moment before venturing to speak. "How did they gain those lands? Are they especially good fighters?"
Gryffudd nodded solemnly. It would be an insult to the men who'd fallen under their hooves to pretend otherwise. "They are formidable, but at their heart they are weak. We have stabbed at it before and struck, but our mistake was that we did not pluck it out."
Iofan nodded, looking for the right words to say to the tragedy. Then, suddenly he stopped. "Are they a wealthy folk?" he asks simply, looking deep into Gryffudd's eyes for the first time since they've started talking.
Gryffudd |Another sore point. He tightened the grip of his left arm on right elbow. "They have allies who will trade with them and refuse us the same dignity. They have enough to put gold on the brow of their king and to keep their shields shining and spears sharp."
Iofan nodded slowly, his hands drawn to his nearly empty coin pouch. "Then I will help ye fight them. I need to pay back a few debts before I can return to my home, and if it means I have to join this fight then so be it." He nodded briskly, his eyes determined.
Gryffudd frowned, but he was willing to hear the hobbit out. "We are not rich, Iofan Madcorf. I am afraid I cannot pay you much to join our cause."
Iofan shook his head. "It is not out of yer coffers that I hope to pay my debts, Master Gryffudd, but out of those of yer enemies... these forgoil."
Gryffudd considered the option. The hobbit had proven himself at more than one feat already. "If you can bear to leave the swamp for the cliffs, I would be honored to have you as our guest." He grinned. "You will not be the only outsider to share our bread and cider. I accept." He held out his hand, but where he'd clasp another Man's elbow he almost gripped the halfling's whole arm. He settled on shaking his hand instead.
Iofan smiled and heartily shook the man's hand, much larger than his own. "Aye, I shan't grieve too much about leaving this swamp. I come from a land of cliffs, it should be nice to see them again. Though I will miss the Avanc-lûth, who have shown me great kindness. I shall return the favor someday." He looked around him at the mud huts and the wooden planked platforms. "Someday."
Gryffudd 's smile stretched, cutting dimples into his scar-flecked cheeks. "I shall help you."
Iofan smiled back, his own cheeks soft and, except for a few freckles, unblemished. "I am glad. Yer a good Man, Gryffudd. As good as they come."
Gryffudd smirked, grave and amused all at once. "You might not think that when we encounter our enemies."
Iofan looked to the side briefly, his brow briefly furrowed. Then he shook his head, and looked back at Gryffudd. "Well, a warrior does what he must to fight for what is right. I will not fault you for it."
Gryffudd nodded, but after a pause. "Thank you, friend."
Iofan smiled, and bowed slightly. "And I thank ye, too."
Gryffudd unfolded his arms so he could mimic the bow. "I intend to ride for the Cleft in two days. There is a meeting at the shelter there I intend to catch up with. If you will come with me, I would have no other companion."
Iofan nodded, his smile gleaming. "I should very much like that. I will take the time to pack the few things I have."
Gryffudd glanced around them at the market that had been abandoned while they talked, the merchants gone home to their families. "Before either of us is late for supper..." He turned back to the halfling. "I am glad to have met you, Iofan Madcorf. Welcome to Cymru." Dunland was the name the Rohirrim gave the hill-land. Gryffudd would not soil his tongue with it.
Iofan smiled, and muttered a grateful thanks before going to the elder's hut, where he had been staying since he had arrived. He ate well that night; fresh slug, a dish which he had grown quite fond of. He told the elders of his intentions to leave, and they wished him well.
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