Chapter Four

Child Support

It is not surprising that harpies are often mistaken for being half bird when you consider that the harpy word for village is nezzd.

My Year among the Harpies: Wild J. Hallon


The battle was over. Victory had been achieved, but not without loss. When Jenni’s father emerged from the harpy village with Greyforth at his side, he had the expression of stoic resignation that he always seemed to have whenever someone had so recently died under his command.

By the look of it, the Duke had been in the very centre of the fighting. His armour was covered with blood splatters and was heavily dented in several places. He had also lost his helmet sometime during the skirmish and was now quite bare-headed.

By contrast, it looked as if Greyforth hadn’t seen a lot of action. His armour was in much the same condition as it had been before the battle. There wasn’t a single splash of blood on him, nor a single dent in need of repair. Then Jenni saw his shield: the coat of arms that adorned it now had a nice centrepiece. At least one harpy had attempted to smash her way through his shield, and she had left her hand behind, neatly sliced off at the wrist.

Jenni watched the scene sadly. Too many of those who had entered the village failed to return.  Jenni had wanted to come here today. She had thought that war was a wonderful thing, full of brave and glorious deeds. She had heard so many tales of the things that her ancestors had done to win their place in society. Now she was beginning to wonder why she had ever asked to come along in the first place. War wasn’t fun. It was certainly no place for a young girl.  Then she looked at the cute face of the little baby that she held in her arms, and suddenly she had no regrets. If she hadn’t come along, this young child would also have been amongst the dead.

Slowly Jenni’s father covered the distance between the harpy village and the head of the column. His mood seemed to change from stoic resignation to happiness once he caught sight of his children and saw that they were okay. His expression then changed again as he saw the state that his daughter’s dress was in. His mood worsened still when he saw the baby that his little daughter was carrying.

‘What is that abomination doing in your arms?’ the Duke shouted angrily. His face went a deep hue of red.

Jenni didn’t know how to respond. She held the child protectively to her. She wanted to tell her horse to move slowly backwards, away from her father, but she knew that would do her no good.

It didn’t help when Tir spoke up, ‘I did want to kill it, Father, but…’

‘But I wouldn’t let him,’ Jenni found her voice, although it was little more than a squeak.

The Duke spurred his horse to a little extra speed and rode up to where Jenni and Tir were waiting. Greyforth followed at a more reasonable pace, arriving not long after. He had a vaguely irritated look on his face.

‘I’m not sure I believe what I’m seeing,’ the Duke roared.

‘I’m afraid it’s true, Father,’ Tir replied.

‘Perhaps you’d be kind enough to explain?’ the Duke insisted of Jenni.

Part of Jenni wanted to back down. For a moment she considered handing the baby to her brother and then riding off so she wouldn’t have to watch as they had him killed.  Jenni was part of the Duke’s family, though. She had been taught to stand up for herself and had done so, about things that she had considered to be of far less importance to her. ‘He’s a baby, Father. His mind is clean, free of any sin. How could I just let him die? Wouldn’t that make me as evil as an elf?’

The Duke’s expression didn’t soften.

‘Your father has fought a long and hard battle with these creatures,’ Greyforth yelled unsympathetically, ‘as have I! The last thing we expected was to return to the body of our army and find that our sister had adopted one of these things as a pet!’

‘Quite,’ the Duke agreed. Then he looked accusingly at Tir. ‘Whatever were you thinking of?’

‘She didn’t ask my opinion, Father,’ Tir replied defensively. ‘She’s my sister, not my daughter.’

‘I see,’ the Duke said. ‘Well, she is my daughter!’

‘If you were to ask my opinion, Father,’ Tir offered, ‘then I agree, we probably should kill the child before he has a chance to grow up. If he hears about what happened here today, he might come after us seeking revenge.’

‘Indeed,’ the Duke said.

Jenni began to sniffle; it was beginning to look like it was three against one.

‘However,’ Tir added quickly, ‘I also don’t like the idea of killing a baby who is obviously less than a day old. A baby that is incapable of defending himself. Doesn’t that sound just slightly dishonourable to you?’

Jenni gave Tir a smile of thanks. It looked as if he was on her side after all.

‘Besides, Pest is right,’ Tir continued. ‘The child is an innocent. If we start killing innocents, then how could we ever claim the moral high ground?’

‘Really,’ the Duke said. He seemed finally to be cooling off a bit as he asked, ‘So what do you think we should do?’

‘We should put it back where it was and let nature deal with the problem,’ Greyforth commented. He refused to refer to the child as anything other than ‘it’.

‘That is one option,’ the Duke agreed.

‘Perhaps we ought to ask Pest,’ Tir suggested, turning to face Jenni. ‘After all, she’s the one that has taken a shine to him.’

Jenni looked from Tir to her father and then to Greyforth. She seemed to be on the verge of tears again. ‘I don’t know! You are all so much older than me. You have ways of arguing that would simply never occur to me. I just know that we shouldn’t harm this baby or leave it where harm can come to it. I don’t know what I can say to convince you all, though. I’m only your little sister. I’m the youngest in the family. As far as you’re all concerned, everything I say can probably be ignored anyway!’ She sighed loudly, holding back the tears. ‘I wish Mother was here. She would help me find the words.’

‘For someone who doesn’t know how to argue, you’re doing a good job,’ the Duke commented. ‘Do you really think your mother would support you in this?’

‘Oh, of course,’ Jenni replied as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. ‘She’s a woman and this is a baby!’

The Duke almost laughed. ‘You might be right there.’

Greyforth shook his head. ‘The child is a harpy. Harpies should die.’

‘I think you’re right, Greyforth,’ the Duke said. ‘On the other hand, the child is but a babe in arms at the moment. We have time to discuss the situation properly before the child becomes a threat. We don’t need to act immediately. We can always kill the child next week or next month if it comes to it.’

‘Thank you, Father,’ Jenni said happily.

‘And what about Mother?’ Greyforth asked.

‘Mother?’ the Duke asked. ‘Why, what about her? Jenni is probably right. Mother will be on the baby’s side.’

‘Mother doesn’t know that Jenni came with us. How will you explain her finding a little baby harpy when she was supposedly nowhere near the battle?’

‘That is a thought,’ the Duke replied.

‘Now hold on,’ Tir interjected. ‘You surely can’t be serious. You aren’t thinking of killing the baby simply because his existence might be awkward to explain to Mother?’

‘Well…’ The Duke hesitated. ‘No, you’re right. But…’

‘Look,’ Tir said, ‘if it’s that much of a problem, then I’ll take the baby back to the castle. Jenni can act all surprised with the rest of those we left behind and then, later tonight, we can discuss the matter like sensible adults instead of a bunch of men still high on the adrenalin of battle.’

‘I’m not sure I like your tone,’ the Duke commented sharply, ‘but perhaps you’re right. Perhaps my point of view is shadowed by the excitement of battle and the loss of so many men.’

‘Well, Jenni?’ Tir said in a soothing tone. ‘Would you let me take the child?’

Jenni hesitated for a moment.

‘He’ll be safe with me, I promise,’ Tir added. ‘And you’ll see him again later.’

Jenni glanced once more at the little harpy in her arms. Then she spurred her horse just enough to move a little closer to her brother so she could hand the child across. ‘Be very careful with him.’

‘I will,’ Tir assured her.

The Duke looked at Jenni. He spoke softly to her, ‘You should head for home. Ideally you should arrive back at the castle a full hour or more before the rest of us reach it. That ought to be enough to give the illusion that you were never with us.’

‘Okay, Father,’ Jenni said. She glanced back to the baby harpy, currently cradled gently in Tir’s arms. She was scared that as soon as her back was turned they were going to do something nasty to him.

The Duke, seeing her hesitate, added, ‘I’m sure you can make up some story about what happened to your dress that doesn’t involve being this close to the battle.’

Then Tir seemed to realise why she was so hesitant to leave, because he said, ‘Don’t worry. Your baby will be quite safe with me.’

Jenni nodded. She sighed, and still hesitant, she turned her horse and began to ride towards the back of the reserve column. She had plenty of time. The army would need to turn around before it could start back. She knew she could probably walk back to the castle and still be there a good hour before her father and brothers got home.

As she rode she still worried about the baby. Tir had promised that the baby would be all right in his charge, but what could she do if Tir didn’t keep his promise? Daydreams filled her head. Greyforth and her father were trying to find increasingly nasty ways to kill the baby. At first Tir was just looking on in the dreams, but then, as the distance between Jenni and her brothers increased, he seemed to take a more active role. After all, he had been the first to suggest that they should kill the baby.

Jenni rode through the gates of the castle to a rapturous applause and then a sigh of disappointment. The courtyard of the castle was filled with the women whose husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons had marched off that morning with the Duke. Many of them were afraid that they would never see their loved ones again, and for some of them that fear was soon to become a reality.

Jenni rode her pony to the castle stables, where an ostler took charge of her mount. Then she tried to sneak into the castle residence through one of the servant’s entrances.

‘You’ve been gone a long time,’ Jenni’s mother, the Duchess Briademe Damothe said as Jenni reached the stairs. Briademe stood near the doorway leading into the great hall, her hands resting on her hips. Her voice was filled with shock as she said, ‘What have you done to your beautiful dress?’

‘I’m sorry, Mother, I fell off my horse,’ Jenni replied quickly.

The Duchess was suddenly very concerned. ‘Are you all right? You weren’t hurt at all?’

‘I’m fine, Mother,’ Jenni tried to assure her mother.

‘I’ll get Mangloss to come and check you over all the same,’ the Duchess said gently.

Jenni sighed. Her mother wasn’t that old, yet sometimes she did seem to forget the most elementary of things. ‘Mother, didn’t Mangloss go to the battle with Father?’

‘Did he?’ the Duchess replied. ‘Oh, I think you’re right. Well, maybe I’ll send him once he gets back then. In the meantime, it might be nice if you go and have a quick bath. I’ll send some servants to run it for you. It’d also be nice if you put on some fresh clothing, something you can welcome your father and brothers home in.’

‘Yes, Mother,’ Jenni readily agreed.

‘Oh, and don’t forget there’s to be a feast in the great hall tonight,’ the Duchess added. ‘To welcome the heroes’ return!’

‘Okay, Mother,’ Jenni said to her. ‘Love you, Mother.’

‘Love you too, dear,’ the Duchess replied.

Jenni climbed the stairs quickly. She congratulated herself that she hadn’t said too much. She had so wanted to reveal that Tir was bringing home a baby harpy with him. She was very glad she had resisted the urge; how could she explain how she knew? Besides, though she hated to think it, there was always the chance that Tir wasn’t bringing a baby harpy home with him.

Just under an hour later, Jenni was back in the courtyard of the castle. She was wearing clothing that was far more to her liking than that nasty dress that her mother had made her wear that morning. The clothing she was wearing now had leggings rather than a long, narrow skirt that pinched her legs together. It made her feel a lot freer.

She stood next to her mother near the main doors of the castle’s residence and waited with the other womenfolk of the castle for the menfolk to return.

It seemed to be quite a long wait, especially for Jenni, who was beginning to get quite concerned about the baby.

Then, with a thunderous applause from the crowd, the army finally began to file in through the castle gates. The Duke rode at the head of the army, flanked by Jenni’s two brothers.

Jenni’s eyes flickered to Tir. By the look of it, he still had the baby with him, although he had wrapped the child in bandages to hide his true race from anyone that might happen to look too closely.

After a while, Tir dismounted from his horse and made his way through the crowd towards Jenni.  He showed the baby to her and told her, ‘Don’t worry, Pest, he’s safe! At least, he is until tonight. I’ll put him in Dad’s study.’ Then he walked past her into the castle, taking the child with him.

The Duchess turned her head to watch as Tir opened the residency doors and disappeared into the building. Then she looked at Jenni and commented, ‘It’s too noisy out here; I didn’t hear him. What did he say?’

‘He told me not to worry,’ Jenni replied.

‘Oh,’ the Duchess commented. ‘Well, obviously you aren’t going to worry, dear. Not now you know your brothers are safe. I never knew you and he were so close.’

Jenni spent just under an hour watching the victorious army enter the castle. Ideally she knew she ought to wait until everyone had passed through the castle gatehouse, but that was going to take a while yet, especially as the progress of the army had slowed to a virtual standstill as many of the womenfolk surged forward to search for their loved ones.

Jenni re-entered the residence and headed directly towards her father’s study to check up on the baby.

Tir had placed the baby on his back on the large oak desk. The baby didn’t look all that comfortable. It looked as if Tir had just put the baby down without giving any thought to his wings or tail. Jenni repositioned the baby as best she could, carefully unfolding his wings and moving his tail so the baby’s entire weight wasn’t on it.

‘If only you could talk,’ Jenni said to the baby as she coddled it. ‘What can I do to make you more comfortable?’

Then it occurred to Jenni that the baby would probably like something to eat. She knew that harpies ate meat, but she had no idea what harpy mothers might give to their children. She knew in the back of her mind somewhere that harpies didn’t produce milk for their young. Yet she couldn’t imagine a creature as young as the baby harpy being able to manage anything else.

In the end she decided that milk wasn’t likely to harm the child. ‘I’m going to fetch you something to eat; I’ll be back very shortly.’

Jenni made a beeline for the castle kitchens. With the feast planned for that night, there was a lot of activity going on in the kitchens, everyone hard at work preparing dishes of all shapes and sizes, from the simplest little side dishes containing various fruits and vegetables to the larger suckling pigs.

Camady, the head cook, saw Jenni enter the kitchens. ‘I’m sorry, milady; we don’t have time to prepare you any snacks today. We have to be ready for the feast tonight.’

‘That’s okay,’ Jenni responded. ‘I can serve myself; just point me towards the milk.’

‘It’s in the urn by the back door,’ Camady told her. The cook then returned her attention to what she had been doing before Jenni had entered.

Jenni grabbed a cup from one of the counters and then poured out a cup of the white foamy liquid. As she did so she looked about the kitchen. Somewhere in here were a set of special lids that had been prepared for Greyforth’s forthcoming baby, but Jenni had no idea where they would be kept and she didn’t feel that it would be a good idea to ask. Instead she took a large wooden stirring spoon from one of the preparation tables and returned to the study.  It would be harder to feed a baby this way, but she was sure it would only be for the one meal.

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