Conn and the Faun
Connalin Svarligson, called Conn by his friends, wound his way among the black-trunked pines of Myrkvior Woods, trudging through thick snow. The trees were closely-packed, so the green needles tickled his face frequently. He was a twelve-year-old boy, so he felt the need to go adventuring from time to time, even if he was supposed to be cleaning his room. He could picture his ma’s face easily; it would be all screwed up in irritation when he got home, albeit with a bit of relief that he was home safe.
The cloudbank overhead was as dense as the snow underfoot. The wind howled above him, above the treetops, making them sway and rustle, but he barely felt it in the dense forest. He had wrapped up warm in his fur-wrapped boots, woollen trousers and tunic and the little beaver-fur coat and hat that his pa had fashioned for him. Snow drifted down lazily, lightly, speckling him as he went. He had to take big steps to clear the high-piled snow, and he used the trees’ crisscrossing branches to help pull himself along.
He did not have any destination in mind as he moseyed along, desirous of nothing more than a jaunt. He considered himself an explorer, mapping new terrain. In fact, as he walked along, he imagined himself a great many things – a warrior, a Wizard, a beast-slayer, a king, a pauper, a man. In winter in the Highlands of Fjelburg, there was often little else to do but use his imagination. Though the snow was thick on the ground, it normally came down even heavier and snowed everybody in, sometimes for days. Some froze or starved to death the winter before, he recalled. So, he considered this a mild winter. Doubtless his ma would be furious at him regardless.
Myrkvior Wood was full of strange, black-trunked pines that grew almost nowhere else in Fjelburg. It grew up the side of a small mountain in the middle of the Highlands. Snow-capped as they were, the dark trees were oddly beautiful to Conn; a strange juxtaposition of black and white that evoked a feeling of cosiness, as if the trees were sleeping or hibernating. People in Conn’s village at the base of the mountain called it accursed sometimes, however, and said they heard eerie music coming from the Wood at night. Few adults ventured there, and any that went for firewood did not venture deep into the shadowy forest, chills up their spines sending them running. As is often the way, the young boy felt no such chills – unless they were chills of excitement.
He felt those chills now as he passed a lightning-struck tree he recognised. The enormous trunk had been blackened and split in twain; a grand old giant resigned to beauteous death. He had never been past that particular tree before, having stopped to study it in the past, and so he felt a thrill course through him like he was the one who had been struck by lightning at the thought of exploring yet further. Though he could not see the sun, he knew it was still early afternoon, because it had not gotten dark yet. It always got dark so early in winter. He figured he had plenty of time.
He ploughed on up the mountainside. The snow started to come down more heavily.
Just when he was considering turning back, starting to worry about the snowfall, Conn was hurled from his feet by a sudden impact. He felt pain, hot and sticky, in his thigh and cried out. He felt sick as he locked eyes with the boar that had charged him. It was a big fat brute covered in brown bristles, with black eyes, a pig-like snout and two vicious-looking tusks on either side of its mouth. It snuffled at him angrily, pawed the ground like a horse and then charged at him again, snorting as it came.
Conn tried to leap up, but the agony in his leg would not let him move faster than a snail’s pace. He watched the boar coming out of the corner of his eye, wishing he had stayed home, sure he was about to die. He felt cold and alone in that moment with a scary emptiness opening up before him like a doorway into nothingness, a pit from which he would never emerge. He wondered if the Valkyries would come for him and take him to Valhalla. He didn’t think so; he didn’t think dying at the tusks of a boar counted as dying in battle.
Then, a little red fireball roared through the trees and struck the boar in the flank with a fiery flash. The creature was abruptly catapulted to one side to smack into a big pine and then lay still. Snow knocked off the leaves and branches of the tree half-buried the dead boar a second later. Conn stared in amazement at the blackened and smoking body.
He heard footsteps in the snow and turned his head so fast he cricked his neck painfully. He blinked in surprise at what he saw and rubbed his eyes, sure they were deceiving him, the tricksters. Before him, padding through the snow was a myth come to life, a Faun.
The creature was half-man, half-goat, with the pale, muscular body of a man above the brown, furry legs, tail and hooves of a goat. It also had ivory horns sprouting from its temples and curving back over its wavy, shoulder-length, earth-brown hair. It was twice as tall as the boy. The Faun strutted over to the boar with a pigeon-like gait and inspected the body, kicking it with a hoof. It then regarded Conn with the yellow eyes and odd, double-lobed pupils of a goat and spoke to him with the lips of a man.
“Hallo, boy,” said the Faun in Traveller’s Tongue, his voice deep, lilting and melodic. “What are you doing all the way up here in this blizzard?”
“I – I was exploring,” Conn stammered, frozen in place.
His wound was throbbing hotly now, and his thoughts were growing sluggish. He couldn’t remember if Fauns were scary or not, so he wasn’t sure how to react. He was trembling with excitement, but his hands were clammy with fear. He felt like he had forgotten how to breathe in the face of the revelation of his discovery, like the new knowledge had ousted the old.
He tried to remember what his pa had told him of Fauns; that they were solitary creatures to be left alone, he thought he recalled. He felt like he was forgetting something that was dancing around his mind’s periphery, taunting him, but he could not remember anything else.
“So I see,” said the Faun, “and a long way up the mountain you have come. You were lucky I heard you cry out. A brave boy you must be to have come so far through Myrkvior. Or foolish. What is your name, brave boy?”
“M-my name is Connalin, Conn for short. What’s yours?”
The Faun smiled, looking strangely sad as it did so. “My name is difficult for your kind to pronounce. You may call me Driff.” He rolled the r in a way that Conn knew he could not.
When the boy said it, the name came out flatter, less musical. “Driff.”
Driff nodded. “Now, let me see to that wound of yours.”
Conn’s leg was on fire. He watched the Faun approach and then passed out.
He awoke in the middle of a round cave beside a fire over which the dead boar was spitted. The smell of it made his mouth water. His leg had been bandaged and now only ached dully. There was no visible way out of the cave except for a narrow crevasse that looked too small for Driff. Conn wondered how he had got in. Then, he remembered what the Faun had done to the boar. He turned to Driff, who was squatting beside him, puffing on a pipe and staring into the flames.
Wafting away the stinky baui smoke, Conn levelled a finger at the Faun. “You did magic!” he croaked, his throat dry.
Driff passed him a water skin and said, “Here. Drink.”
Conn guzzled a couple of mouthfuls, wiped his lips and said again, “You did magic back there! To that boar! You killed it with magic!”
“I did,” the Faun said flatly, not boasting or ashamed. “It was that or let it kill you.”
“Yeah … I guess it was. Thank you for saving my life, Driff.”
The Faun smiled at him sadly. “It was my pleasure. You have been feverish all night, but I think you’re on the mend now.”
“All night?” Conn exploded, feeling suddenly nauseous with guilt. He tried to push himself to his feet, but his injured leg was numb. “My ma will be losing her mind with worry!”
Driff nodded. “It can’t be helped. You need time to heal, my boy. Then, you can return to your ma.”
Conn slumped back down miserably. He would be in for it if he ever did get home, he reflected. He was silent awhile then, thinking of his ma and pa, of his home, which had once seemed so boring but now seemed like the greatest adventure of them all.
Driff cut some strips of meat off the spitted boar and handed them to Conn, saying, “Eat.”
The boy did so in silence.
Eventually, Driff commented, “Sounds like the snowstorm is worsening out there.”
Conn didn’t know how the Faun knew what was going on outside; he could barely hear the whine of the wind now that he was inside. He finished the strips of meat; they were gamey and delicious.
“I’ve just realised, I never did ask what you are. Are you a Faun?”
“I am indeed.”
“Wow! We all thought Fauns were just a legend, a story! Are there many of you up here in the Woods?”
“No. Just me.”
The sorrowful answer brought Conn up short. “Oh. I’m sorry to hear that,” he said awkwardly.
“As am I, child. As am I. Once, we Fauns thrived here in the Woods of Myrkvior, but now I fear I may be the last and when I am gone …”
“What happened to you?” Conn asked when Driff trailed off.
“Your people happened to us, my boy,” the Faun said evenly. “Not all reacted to the sight of us as you did today. Some took up bows and axes and hunted us with dogs and killed us for our fur, for our ivory, for the prize of our corpses. You Highlanders are a simple folk, you know. You see something, you kill something. Now, there are almost no Fauns left.”
Conn didn’t know what to say; he was on the verge of tears, feeling like he was being accused, verbally attacked. He hated his own people in that moment and felt sorry for the Faun.
“But let us speak of more pleasant topics, shall we?” Driff said more brightly. “Do you live in the village at the bottom of the mountain, Conn?”
Conn nodded and wiped his eyes. “Yes. Tamblin-Doon it’s called. They’re good people there … At least, I thought they were.”
“I’m sure they are,” said the Faun gently, nodding, “in their own way. They merely follow their nature; I hold no grudge or ill feeling towards them or you. It would be like getting angry at a dog for barking or at the sun for rising or at the sky for being blue. They cannot help what they are. Neither can I. And neither can you.”
“Still, I’m sorry for what my people have done to yours,” said Conn, feeling wretched.
“All is forgiven,” said Driff with that sad smile.
“How can it be?”
“We Fauns have had to put up with a lot of antagonism over the years, my boy.” Seeing Conn’s nonplussed look, he added, “A lot of people trying to kill us or enslave us. We learned long ago that forgiveness is the way forward, the only way to peace. We learned long ago not to try to change what cannot be changed.”
“But you can do anything with magic,” Conn protested. “You can change anything. Didn’t you defend yourselves?”
“We did,” Driff replied, “but not to the extent that we were willing to kill you to save ourselves. We are peaceful creatures, we Fauns. Bloodshed does us ill.”
Conn shook his head in disbelief; that was not the way he had been raised. His people were far more warlike than the Fauns. He began to wonder, though – what was so wrong with a peaceful life?
He had been taught that war was a way of life, that it would be his way of life. He had been taught that the Gods respected only the strong, that Baldr blessed only the brave and that the Valkyries would only take to Valhalla those who died in battle with a sword or axe or spear in their hand. Was there another way? he wondered – and if there was, which was the right way? He knew what his pa would say, and he knew what Driff would say, but he suddenly found he didn’t know who was right anymore. Could a man get to Valhalla without bloodshed? Was there another place besides Valhalla where his soul might go after death?
“Then, how do you get to Valhalla?” he asked slowly with furrowed brow.
Driff gave a bark of laughter. “Ha! Valhalla! Not everyone worships war like you people! We Fauns revere peace and we believe that we will be rewarded for doing so in the life after this one by way of reincarnation. If we are violent, we will be reborn as slugs or snails or worms in the dirt. If we are beneficent, we will be reborn as eagles or lions or clouds in the sky.”
Conn was puzzled. “But eagles and lions kill things,” he pointed out.
“It is in their nature,” Driff replied. “And one cannot fault a creature for its nature as I have said.”
“But you killed that boar?”
“To save you, yes.”
“But you still killed it. That wasn’t very peaceful.”
“I did it to save you, a man, a higher level of being than a mere boar. Sentient life is to be treasured above all else.”
“So … if you can kill as easy as swatting a fly,” Conn asked, his brows low in concentration, “isn’t it against your nature not to kill? I mean, isn’t it in your nature to kill? So, you can’t be faulted for that, surely.”
Driff cocked his head as if he had never thought of that. “We Faun are peaceful creatures,” he said again more uncertainly. “That is our nature.”
Conn puffed out his cheeks in bemusement. “Tell me about your people,” he said.
Driff did. He told the boy stories of the Faun on and off all day while Conn drifted in and out of sleep, and the next day, and the next day, too. He wove tales of mighty warriors, ancient castles, mysterious Wizards, bizarre creatures from faraway lands, noble Kings and Queens, brave serfs and farmers; tales of war and peace, of famine and plenty, of natural devastation and the struggle to rebuild. The way he told it the Fauns had once been a plentiful and powerful people many centuries ago, but had been decimated since.
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