Sunday, November 28, 2010

Mid Life Crisis

Fenn and Fexx had planned well for their retirement.

This was when the trees were still so tall that the sky could only be seen as snatches of brilliant blue in a dark canopy of leaves. This was when the forest was vast and full of unknowable dangers, when people only went abroad in the woods in the company of other people.

Fenn, a small, intense woman whose age was reflected only in a wisp of white hair at each temple, and Fexx, a craggy-faced man in whom the lack of hair was more than balanced by an ample waist, had worked hard for many years. In a clearing in the dark tall trees they had built a Hogan with many rooms, and had goods stored in these rooms enough to trade for food and clothing for many years. Around their Hogan were the hogans of their children, grown and married, and those hogans beginning to fill with grand-children. The hogans of their friends and neighbours were nearby: a busy little village amid the tall mysterious trees.

All their lives the couple had said: “When our children are grown and married, we will live lives of idleness and want for nothing.” But it was days and weeks and year after year of preparation, labour and trade. The children would labour beside them, travel with them and watch them haggle with tradesmen from other villages. Gradually their worth increased and gradually they achieved their goal. Their children honoured their parents for their hard work, and for raising them in health and security, and for finding honourable trades in which to train them.

Now, their children having grown to maturity and married., Fenn and Fexx discovered that their business affairs could be run by younger folk and they decided to take their well-deserved ease.

So it was: they would waken every morning and dine, and drink fresh clean water from the spring that ran nearby, and they would sit in the sun and play with their grandchildren and teach them songs and games. And the grandchildren would bring them crafts they had made so that the grandparents could admire such skills as they thought were thus displayed.

But after some years Fexx, the man, sitting in the morning sun said to Fenn, the woman: “I am dissatisfied. A life of indolence seemed good when all we had was toil, but it seems less desirable when one actually has nothing else to which to look forward.”

“I do not see it that way,” sniffed Fenn. “I am quite satisfied to dandle babies and teach songs to toddlers. I am every day advising children as to the best materials for making crafts and tools. Perhaps you should teach your grandchildren the skills of old.”

“Leather-making is too dangerous for small ones to learn,” replied Fexx, shading his eyes against the morning sun. “And trading-up is too complex for young ones to grasp.” He blushed a little. “And I am not wise as some teachers, even as you are, who are born seeing things as they truly are. I have only the kind of wisdom that life teaches with a mallet on the head.”

“You need to do something that stretches you,” said Fenn, who was helping a little boy string shells on a braid of hanging moss. “Do something for other people, instead of just for yourself.”

“Hmmph! Your words have wisdom,” replied the man, “I will have to think about that,”. And he went into his Hogan, cool and thatched with long grass, and lay down on his mat to think. In the distance he could hear the village wise-woman singing a healing chant. Her drumming lulled him into drowsiness…The sun had passed the no-shadow mark when the man awoke.

“A shaman seems to provide people with health and security,” he said thoughtfully. “Perhaps I could become a shaman.”

“Becoming a shaman requires long training,” said Fenn with a knowing smile. “And I think it requires a lot of fasting.”

“Nonetheless,” said Fenn resolutely, “Fasting or no, I intend to ask the village shaman what needs to be done for me to become a shaman.”

The village shaman was skeptical.

“Boredom is not a good reason to enter the Unseen World,” she said. “You would be better off teaching young ones the ways of the forest.”

“I would like to try,” said Fexx. “I am not much of a teacher.”

“All the more reason to NOT be a shaman,” said the shaman with a sly grin. “However, I will get you started. Who knows on whom the Gift chooses to reside unless we try?”

She went to a leather bag that hung from the wall of her simple hut and drew out a bone flute, polished smooth from much use.

“You must make a bone flute like this one,” she said, caressing the smooth surface of the bone with her fingertips, “and you must fast for five days, drinking only water, and play songs on the flute, camped on the earthen mound in the next clearing to the west of us. If it is to be, you will be visited by the Gate-Keeper of the Unseen World.”

The People are respectful of the world around them, and have rituals for every time they take something from the woods. Fexx found a hunter, as Fexx was a craftsman and not accustomed to the hunt, and the two of them pronounced the blessings and apologies required for a successful hunt. They went into the deep dim woods and by and by they had taken a deer. After they said the thanksgiving rituals Fexx took the hide to cure it for the hunter and a tibia bone to make the flute. The hunter took the meat and the rest of the Things of Value that result from a good hunt.

Fexx was a fair craftsman and in a couple of weeks had carved a flute that could be played without shame. He took a skin of water and trekked alone to the next clearing to the west, where he assembled firewood enough for four nights of camping. After the first day, hunger began to be truly distracting, but Fexx played diligently on his bone flute. The nights were clear and cold, and Fexx could sometimes see green eyes in the dark, just outside the circle of light cast by his fire. Despite his fears, he sipped his water sparingly, played his bone flute, and waited. After four days of fasting and playing the flute on the earthen mound, Fexx suddenly noticed that the sky was darkening in the middle of the day, and that the grass around the mound seemed to be withering as it does in the fall. A great albino elk stalked majestically out of the forest, shaking its shaggy white mane as it walked slowly up to the earthen mound. The white elk shoved its broad pink muzzle very close to Fexx’s face.

“What is it you seek?” asked the elk, speaking in a deep baritone as clearly as any human. Its eyes were not the pink that one might expect in a true albino, but burned as if lit from within by flames.

“I – I – am not sure,” stammered Fexx, unnerved by the spectre. Fexx had not really expected to have success on the first try. “I want to help people.”

“The Unseen World is not a tool to be used for Good Works,” snorted the albino elk, flames leaping in the enormous eyes. “The shaman is equally a servant of the Not Seen, maintaining Balance. A skillful shaman MAY turn the Balance to the benefit of all, but not always.”

“What do you advise?” asked Fexx, falling into his tradesmen’s bargaining speech.

The albino elk reared and snorted angrily, clouds of steam billowing from its wide red nostrils.

“That is not how this is done!” it barked, sounding more like a real elk. “YOU make the decision, and the Balance decides whether you live or die in the process!”

The great albino elk wheeled on its hind legs and trotted back to the forest, letting out a huge fart of smoke as it passed into the trees. The sunlight returned to mid-day brilliance, and the grass once again became early-summer green.

Fexx sighed and picked up his water-skin. Through frugal use of the water there was enough to put out the embers of last night’s fire, which he did, and then he trudged back to his Hogan in the next clearing.

“Are you a shaman, yet?” asked Fenn, gravely. She was helping her grandson chip flint pieces into tiny but effective arrowheads.

“I had a vision,” said Fexx, uncertainly, “and it disturbed me greatly. I do not think the supernatural is where my skills lie.”

“Then you have acquired knowledge you did not have before,” smiled Fenn, somewhat relieved by her husband’s choice. “And you have lost some of the doughy tummy in the process.” She poked him gently in his midriff.

“I have also acquired a fondness for playing the bone flute,” replied Fexx thoughtfully, gazing at the flute in his hand. “Perhaps I could become a musician.”

“Musicians must study for a long time,” sighed Fenn tolerantly. “I do not think five days of tootling qualifies one for accompanying our singers….” She absent-mindedly scooped up the finished arrowheads and handed them to the boy.

“Nevertheless,” replied Fexx resolutely, “the door stands open to my new career and I intend to walk through it.”

The next morning Fexx went to the Hogan of the Teacher of Songs.

“I have discovered a fondness for playing the bone flute,” said Fexx. “Is it possible that one might become a musician this late in life?”

“Many musicians begin in such a way,” nodded the Teacher of Songs. “I warn you, though, that becoming proficient on the flute is not the same as being a musician. One must also be willing to be available to attend the singers whenever they are required to perform. And one must continually practice to keep up one’s skill.”

“I would like to try,” said Fexx, less uncertain about this than he had been about becoming a shaman.

Fexx found that studying the flute was both daunting and pleasurable. It seemed that he might have always had the talent but never had the opportunity to learn, with his life of craft and trade and busyness. He became quite good on the flute, and he enjoyed it so much that he carved bone flutes for the three of his grandchildren who would sit at his feet while he practiced his scales and runs.

“Perhaps if I had had such an opportunity as a youth,” he explained to Fenn in response to her raised eyebrow, “I might have been able to soften our life of toil with some merry tunes.”

“I am content with our past the way I remember it,” chuckled Fenn, who was not a fan of the flute. “There is much to be said for thoughtful silence.”

The time came when the Teacher of Songs declared that Fexx was ready to accompany the Singers. That night, around the communal fire, Fexx took his place with the drummers and strummers, and the Singers of the Songs of the People. From the first notes, Fexx felt born away on a wind of wonder, his notes shrill against the starry sky or soft upon the dance-hardened earth, the harmonies of instrument and voice blending and separating as the Singers told the stories that bound the People to each other and to the World.

In the morning, though, when the sun slanted through the doorway into his blood-shot eyes, it occurred to Fexx that being a musician required a commitment not only to the art and to the Singers, but also to late nights and early mornings. Still, the wonder of that first performance stayed with him, quickening both his pulse and his step, and he continued to perform with the Singers. The morning after each performance, though, Fexx arose later and later and with greater difficulty until one day he said to Fenn: “It is enough. If I keep up these late nights, I will die. Perhaps if I were a younger man I could continue, but it is enough.”

“Then you have acquired knowledge you did not have before,” smiled Fenn, more than a little relieved by her husband’s choice. “And you have encouraged your grandchildren to explore talents they might otherwise have neglected.”

It was true. The three grandchildren had formed a little performing group of their own, although their music was peculiar to the ears of the elder folk.

For the next little while Fexx took pleasure in playing the bone flute for his own amusement and to accompany his grandchildren. He slept in the morning sun and chatted with his children when they came to visit, until he felt quite recovered from his foray into the world of music and dance. One day, he went to the cool cellar where they kept the ale and found that he and his family had already consumed the small supply. He took some trade goods and two of his sons on the three-day voyage to the next village where there was a brewer of ale.

The brewer was skilful not only at making ale, but also at haggling, and Fexx paid rather more than he intended for the three barrels of ale that they then loaded onto travois behind their mules. He thought long and hard about the bargaining as they made their return journey, and when they had arrived home and had carefully placed the barrels on their stands in the cool cellar, Fexx said thoughtfully to Fenn, who was knitting booties for the latest grandchild:

“I believe I will apprentice myself to the brewer.”

“Oh now REALLY!” said Fenn crossly, glaring at Fexx over her needles. “It is one thing to try a few things in the village, but apprenticing is a LO-O-O-ONG process and you are a man who should be enjoying the well-earned leisure of his autumn years.” She flicked a piece of yarn scornfully, sending the ball bouncing across the earthen floor of the Hogan.

“It does not seem to require much skill,” smiled Fexx. “Just barrels and mash and time. Perhaps I will just make a trip back to the other village and see whether the brewer will brag to me.”

Fexx, though not particularly wise, had found over the years that craftsmen would often brag about their skill over a tankard of ale. In this way Fexx had learned many a small thing that had let him add to his fortune.

This time, Fexx took some trade goods and one of his older grandsons and made the three-day journey to the village of the brewer. He made a gift to the brewer of some pottery vessels he had acquired from the coastal people who have talent at that craft, and the brewer agreeably set out two tankards of ale. After a few samplings of his own product the brewer agreed to take Fexx on a tour of the brewery. It was more primitive than Fexx had expected, but simple and clean. When Fexx complimented the brewer on the tidiness of the long cool hut with its rows of barrels and clay pots, the brewer swelled with pride.

“Cleanliness is the secret to good brewing,” he said, eyes shining with the joy of his profession. “You want only the good yeast growing in your mash, to keep it sweet and not smelly like skunk-soup.”

Unexpectedly, the grandson, who had been trailing silently behind the two convivial men, spoke up.

“This ale, in the maple barrels, is it sweeter tasting because you baked the barrels over coals before filling them with mash?”

The brewer was astounded, and aghast.

“Have you brought a spy to learn my secrets??” he cried.

“Is he correct?” asked Fexx mildly.

“Yes, but-but how??” spluttered the brewer.

“I have been tasting from your mugs as we went along,” replied the youth, somewhat blurrily. “And I was comparing the taste with the wood in the barrel. The birch barrels made the ale sort of bitter…”

“Ale is not for boys of ten winters,” frowned the brewer, bending to peer more closely at the boy..

“I have thirteen winters,” replied the boy proudly. “I will soon be a man.”

“Old enough to apprentice!” said the brewer smiling at the boy with greater interest. “Would you like to live here and learn my trade? ”

“I would!” replied the boy , astonished.

Fexx was equally astonished, and somewhat offended. A master does not bargain directly with the apprentice….and then he remembered that he, Fexx, had thought to apprentice with this brewer. Ah, well, one mustn’t stand in the way of true talent.

“I will pay you nothing, and I will treat you like a slave,” said the brewer, eyes twinkling.

“That’s as it should be,” grinned the boy in return. “And I shall sleep in and speak insolently when chastised.”

“I like this one,” chuckled the brewer, holding his quaking abdomen. ‘We shall get on well, I think.”

“The boy must return to our village for his manhood ritual,” interjected Fexx. “We will return in three weeks with his belongings.”

“Make it four,” said the brewer. “I was unprepared for the appearance of an apprentice, and must create a disgusting hovel in which he will dwell while under my authority.”

By this time the three were exiting the brew-house and had come abreast of the tidy sweet-smelling barn where the goats were housed.

“I can always sleep among the goats,” sighed the boy dramatically.

Fenn was stringing a deer hide for stretching when Fexx and the boy returned. The boy ran to Fenn for a hug and set to pinning the hide on the stretching frame. Fenn dispensed a hug to Fexx, removing the wooden hide pins from her mouth to accept a kiss.

“So,” she teased gently, “Are you a brewer yet?”

“No,” laughed Fexx, “but young Stenn has an offer to apprentice with the brewer! Imagine!”

“And he having yet to finish the Transition Ritual!” replied Fenn, pride creeping into her voice as she gazed at the children. “Oh MY!” she gasped suddenly, pulling away from the embrace. “Exactly WHEN is Stenn to begin his apprentice-ship?? We have to plan his Transition Ritual!!

“We are to return in four weeks,” said Fexx, somewhat bewildered by his wife’s abrupt transition from pride to anxiety.

“Four WEEKS??” cried Fenn, now sliding over from anxiety into anger. “Four WEEKS??!”

Fenn rushed from the Hogan and began shrieking for her daughters. In moments excited and exasperated voices began to fill the quiet of their forest glen. Stenn stood forgotten by the stretching frame with his jaw sagging. It had just occurred to him that HE was the author of this turmoil in the family. It was rather exhilarating….

Fexx was remorseful that his thoughtlessness had caused grief to his wife, although he could tell she reveled in the planning of the Transition Ritual. As a salve to his own conscience, he rounded up the three flute players.

“A tune,” said Fexx to his three talented grandchildren. “We need to come up with an original composition for Stenn’s Transition Ritual.”

So it was, while Fenn and her daughters acquired the appropriate food-stuffs and decorations, Fexx and his three grandchildren composed and rehearsed and developed a complicated tune, sad and merry by turns, to celebrate the Transition Ritual of young Stenn.

There are People across the face of the globe for whom the rituals of transition into adulthood involve pain, mutilations, isolation from family. The River People of the deep wood, however, are of the opinion that life has enough of misfortune that a teenager who has earned the right of the Ritual of Transition need not be subjected to such indignities. Instead, the young person is subjected to OTHER indignities, to demonstrate the candidate’s maturity and independence. For example, the candidate cooks a dish which the candidate must then serve to the elder adults as part of the festive meal. The candidate must prepare and deliver a speech about what lies ahead in life. The candidate must endure many, many stories about his or her childhood, told by teasing aunts and uncles. Many such candidates have confided that ritual mutilation might have been preferable to this last test of maturity.

The Rituals of Transition are mostly celebratory, with dancing and songs and the traditional Stories That Bind the People to the land and to each other. By the time the moon was high over the campfire, most folk were stuffed, wrung dry of song and sore of limb and foot. It was the ideal moment for Fexx and his trio to step forward and present their gift to young Stenn and his proud parents. The bone flute is not particularly well suited to unaccompanied harmonies, but the three young people had been busy experimenting, and with their grandfather had produced a piece that from the beginning caught the imagination of the assembled families. Those who heard the piece for the first time found themselves transported to the time when they, fearful and elated, stepped away from the hogans of their own families to seek their own special destinies. They caught a tentative, strengthening melody that recurred artfully throughout the piece until it dominated, only to fade away at the end of the piece, providing both promise and closure.

“It is Stenn!” cried his mother in agony and delight.

“It is me!” cried each of the uncles, tears running down their faces.

Stenn stood before the flickering firelight, his face white from a tangle of emotion, erect and proud in the recognition that he had passed from childhood into whatever followed. Suddenly, Stenn was pointing as a child would point into the shadows beyond the firelight. A peculiar bent figure in a long hooded robe was limping into the circle of family and friends.

“Forgive my intrusion into your celebrations,” it said in a voice that, while soft and almost feminine, nonetheless rang with echoes of far-off thunder. “I was passing by along the main trail when I heard that last piece of music….”

The figure turned to Fexx and his trio.

“A wonderful piece, full of love and wishes of good fortune!”

Fexx smiled in acknowledgement. His grandchildren shyly stepped back behind their grandfather.

“I have a problem, though,” continued the weirdly sonorous voice. “Your song has a certain magic to it….it disturbs the Balance. It is as though you have given me a gift that I must somehow repay.”

“Nothing of the sort,” protested Fexx, who had suddenly recognized the peddler. “If we have given you a gift, please consider it the hospitality of this special occasion.”

“I would like that very much,” replied the peddler, standing somewhat more erect. “But it doesn’t work that way. The Balance is disturbed in a certain way and must be restored.”

The peddler reached into its sleeve and drew out three gold coins. Stenn thought for minute that they were for him but the peddler turned its back on the fire.

“If you will allow me,” it said in an abstracted tone of voice, “after this you will be able to perform that piece as often as you wish.”

It cupped the coins in both claw-like hands and bowed its head as if saying a blessing. To the watchers around the festive fire it seemed as though the light of the moon flowed down out of the sky and into the peddler’s hands. Fexx thought that light might be flowing from the coins up to the moon, but, no, that would be silly.

The peddler drew its hands apart and the gold coins had become a sort of spider web of shining golden light. The peddler began twisting the gold filaments with its weird clawed fingers until the spider web was as wide as the peddler was tall. Then it threw the web high into the air where it expanded even more, shining and scintillating in the moonlight. Stenn thought at the time that this light show might be enough of a repayment to restore the Balance, but in later years this image came back to him whenever he entered this clearing. Spinning and shining, the web drifted to earth, covering a spot just to the west of the fire-pit, where there were no trees. In fact, there was little of anything growing on that particular spot of flattened earth. The golden web sat gleaming on the earth for a few seconds and then sank into the earth itself, leaving no evidence that anything had happened..

“How wonderful!” began Stenn, turning to thank the peddler. The peddler was gone.

In the days that followed, during which Stenn performed the remaining rituals of cleaning up after his party and packing his belongings for travel, the family recounted over and over the fabulous and unbelievable events of the night of the party. Some of the children even tried to dig down though the packed earth where the gold web had sunk in, to no avail. There was nothing there but dirt.

So Stenn went off to his apprenticeship. His father and uncles accompanied him, as was the way of their People, with trade goods on their mules so as to return from the trip with ale to replenish what the party had depleted. There were rituals for his father and uncles to perform on the return trip, the Rituals of Transition having been rather compacted together by circumstance.

On the day that Stenn’s father and uncles were due to return, Fexx arose earlier than usual and went for a walk in the morning mist. The summer had passed into early fall and the time of harvest was nearly upon the family. Fexx had found that the turmoil of the enormous family was more tiring than he remembered, and these walks through the quiet wood were a good way to calm and focus the mind.

“Even when one has no real agenda for the day,” Fexx had remarked to Fenn (“speak for yourself!” Fenn had retorted) , “a bit of meditation helps to accomplish what little needs doing.” Fenn snorted and continued weaving the rug she had been working on for the winter season.

It was a fine day for a walk: just chilly enough to guarantee that the walker would not work up a sweat, but sunlit and bright to gladden the heart. Geese flew overhead on their way south. Siskins and chickadees chipped and chirred in the undergrowth. Some lazy wasps blundered among the late thistle blossoms. Fexx found a solid branch that would carve nicely into a walking stick. High overhead, a squirrel greeted the day with a long complaining chatter. When his stomach began to growl, Fexx bent his path once again toward the cluster of hogans that housed his burgeoning brood.

Approaching from the South, where a deer path exited the woods into the clearing, Fexx passed over the flattened earth on which the glowing web had come to rest. Fexx breathed an exclamation of surprise! A dozen sturdy saplings had grown up in a circle around the expanse. All oaks, thought Fexx. The squirrels had been busy burying their acorns. He stopped to have a closer look, and grasping one of the saplings by the trunk close to the ground gave an experimental tug. Solid! He braced both feet and heaved with all his might. The sapling could not be budged. The other saplings were just as deeply rooted and, while not identical, were all of similar diameter and height.

Fexx paced off the distances between the saplings that were across from each other on the enclosed earth. One could easily fit three large hogans in the circle.

“It is most peculiar,” said Fexx to Fenn. “Nothing has grown there since I can remember, and now there are a dozen oak saplings growing just where the peddler made the golden web.”

“There is also a mature oak tree not ten paces to the south of the formerly bare patch,” replied Fenn with a small smile, “and it has been a very good year for acorns. Perhaps it is less peculiar than you think.”

“You are often correct and practical when I am fanciful,” laughed Fexx, swooping his mildly protesting wife up in a solid embrace. “But I think this time my thoughts are not without merit.”

“Oaks grow slowly,” said Fenn, kissing him fondly. “It will be years before we can test your theory.”

The following winter was not so much hard as memorable. The snow was deep, deeper than the height of a young sapling. The air was crisp and cold, with day after bright sunlit day so that the snow acquired a thick crust firm enough for children to walk on in their beaded elk-skin boots. One day out of five the sky turned grey with snow clouds and in the morning the sun would rise on a hand’s-breadth of new snow. The livestock made trails between their barns and the watering place that by the secondmonth after the solstice were actual canyons in the snow, the banks high enough that from a distance the sheep were completely invisible and the mules appeared as disembodied horse heads floating about the snow.

In their hogans, the People were dry and warm. The village was a warren of trails through the mounting snow-banks, well-worn from frequent visits back and forth. The children dug tunnels into the banks and reinforced the walls with ice made by burning oil lamps inside the cavities in the snow. There was food in plenty, due to diligence and abundance at harvest time. Even so, the hunters went out every two weeks or so to return with rabbits or the occasional deer. The snow crust would not support adults without snow-shoes, though, so as the snow got deeper, their forays became less frequent.

Once a week the People would gather in the hogan of one or another of the larger families for the ritual Singing of the Songs that Bind. It was a good excuse to make special foods to share, and to dance and laugh over old stories. It was a good time for apprentice singers and musicians to try their hand at the traditional music, or to test out new compositions. Fexx and his grandchildren became adept at adapting their accompaniments to the techniques of the various artists, even the apprentice drummers. The collective experience of the deep snow seemed to deepen their talent and broaden their interpretation of the traditional Songs. And so the People sang and danced and laughed the winter away, so that when the Spring came and the robins could be heard singing in the snowbound trees there was a certain wistfulness in the knowledge that the People would soon be released into the greening woods and pastures.

As it turned out, the snows began to dwindle from the sunny days just about the time the People had eaten as many sheep as they could afford to lose and were dipping into their resources of dried beans and elk-jerky. There were a few days when melt water was running freely through the hogans, which made for a miserable and cranky time when the food and other resources had to be hurriedly slung from the ribs of the hogans to keep them off the sopping-wet floors. Then the waters found other channels (the family hogans having been purposely built on a small hill for drainage) and the People began to rejoice in the impending Spring. The early-blooming bushes were still surrounded by small snow banks when the children made the discovery in the circle of the Golden Web.

“Look! Look!” they cried with astonishment. “See how the trees have grown!”

The People ran to the clearing of the Golden Web.

“By the Songs!” said Fenn in amazement. “The saplings have grown two man-heights over the winter! Whoever heard of such a thing?”

“And look here,” replied Fexx, wandering among the trees in the circle of the Golden Web. “All the branches are on the OUTSIDE of the circle. On the inside, the trunks are bare!”

All the village came to marvel at the circle of oaks, the limbless trunks facing each other like the pillars of a temple. Week by week, the oaks grew taller, much faster than an oak should grow. Fexx was smug: for once his fanciful thought had proven to be right!

Week by week the oaks in the circle grew tall and sturdy, the branches on the outside of the circle full of green foliage and brilliant with songbirds. As is often the case with asymmetrical trees, the oaks of the circle began to lean toward the side without the branches. They do this for two reasons: they hope to get more light for their leaves, and they need to balance the weight of the leafy branches on the fruitful side so as not to fall down. It was a natural thing for trees to do, and yet it was eerie, with a dozen nearly identical trees doing exactly the same thing. People from other villages began coming to look at the Circle of the Golden Web and its twelve sentinel trees. Fexx and Fenn had the largest hogan close to the trees, so travelers would often stop and share food and drink with them. Sometimes the guests would leave gifts for their hosts: trade goods and food, sometimes small magical tokens.

By autumn, Fenn remarked to Fexx:

“We have accumulated a LOT of gifts from our visitors. This has been a most unusual summer!”

“It will not last, I think,” replied Fexx, absently. “I walked out to the Circle of the Golden Webb this morning and I noticed that each of the trees of the Circle has sprouted branches at three to four man-heights about the ground. By Spring I expect that they will be just a circle of ordinary oaks.”

“I wonder,” said Fenn thoughtfully. “There are no forest floor plants growing in the circle, nor other saplings sprouting from the packed earth. It is very odd….”

Just before the first snow of the twelfth month (there being thirteen months in a year of the People) Stenn and his master came to visit the village. The family ran to greet their brother, now fourteen years old, and tall with muscles from chopping endless piles of wood, fetching endless pails of water and wrestling barrel after sloshing barrel of ale onto their trestles. On travois behind two mules the master and apprentice brought two barrels of dark ale. The families came running from their various chores to greet the returning Stenn and his master. There was much hand-clasping and slapping of backs, and much curiosity over the contents of the barrels.

“It’s too early for a journeyman’s project,” said the brewer proudly, “but it’s promising start. Stenn is a fast learner and a hard worker.”

While the apprentice Stenn was being squeezed and teased by friends and family, Fexx and the brewer went to see the Circle of the Golden Web and its unusual oaks. The two men stood in the middle of the circle, surrounded by sturdy trees.

“Have you noticed,” asked the brewer, straining his eyes upward in the gloom cast by the leafy branches overhead, “that the branches on the inside of the circle seem to weave together like the roof of a hogan?”

“I had not until this moment,” replied Fexx. “Perhaps that is why nothing grows inside the circle: no rain, no sunshine. It is like a thatched roof.”

“Have you also noticed that these trees are thicker around than the tree outside the circle, but that tree is taller?”

“I noticed that,” frowned Fexx, running through his memory for possible explanations. “The outsider tree is most likely the parent of all of these, since there is quite a distance to the forest edge, so it SHOULD be taller, but that the off-spring should be thicker through the trunk is, well, odd….” He squinted at the lone oak in the clearing. “Have you noticed that the parent oak is ALSO growing at a slant, like the oaks in the Circle? Odd…”

The community all sampled the apprentice’s first brewing and pronounced it acceptable, and after a week the he and brewer returned to the brewer’s village, laden with gifts and good wishes. Fall came with a good harvest and Winter came with a milder season than the previous year. In the early Spring the People noticed that the Circle of the Golden Web was now a dense copse of oak, still void of underbrush in the middle and now densely thatched overhead with the interweaving of the overhanging branches. The trunks were now so thick that a person could scarcely squeeze between them except for a broad gap to the west and a smaller gap to the east..

Fenn and Fexx took a walk out to see this marvel.

“You know….,” began Fenn tentatively staring up into the dark vault above them, “a person could build almost anything inside this circle of trees and never worry about rain, or wind.”

“True,” agreed Fexx, not knowing where this was going.

“And there has been MUCH more traffic through the deep forest in the past two years than that to which we have traditionally been accustomed,” continued Fenn.

“Also true.”

“And one could hang doors on that gap to make a front entrance, and on THAT gap to make a service entrance….”

“This is a very large space for a home,” protested Fexx, becoming alarmed at the direction the conversation seemed to be taking.

“Silly!” laughed his wife, pushing him affectionately. “Aren’t you always saying that this life of indolence is not to your liking? We could put a way-station here.”

“A hospitality hogan?”

“YES!” she crowed in delight, twirling under the leafy dome. “For travelers through the deep wood. We could even sling logs from the lower clefts of these trees…see, there are no branches but the trunks divide just right, there,” she pointed, “there and there. And we could use the beams to put in a second floor for rooms for guests.”

“Like a tree house?”

“Yes! And we could put a kitchen out back to the east and bring in the meals through the service door…..”

Construction began almost immediately, but there were many other things that needed attention. When harvest was finished there were items that needed to be acquired from the forest before the snows came. Everyone remembered the previous winter, with the snow banked deeper than the height of a child.

Much to his own surprise, Fexx was not horrified by the impending expense of fulfilling his wife’s project. He had a dream of his own.

“We could brew our own ale to serve to travelers….” he murmured dreamily. “We do have family in the business.”

“When his apprenticeship is finished, one would have to ask Stenn whether this is where he wants to ply his trade,” retorted Fenn rather tartly, “here in the village of his youth.”

Stenn chose that moment to poke his head in through the widest gap in the trees of Circle of the Golden Web.

“Ask Stenn what, honoured grandmother?” he asked, most respectfully.

“How are you come to us at just the right moment?” cried Fenn embracing her tall grandson with joy. "Have you finished your apprenticeship?”

“No, grandmother, only visiting,” chuckled Stenn, accepting an affectionate hug from Fexx as well. “My master is delivering a very large order to the Three Valley Gap, and we are hiring a wagon to take the barrels on the new broad trail.” He paused to gaze around at the construction. “What did you want to ask me?”

“Would you like to brew ale for this hospitality hogan here in the village?” asked Fenn, eyes sparkling with enthusiasm. She spread her arms and turned slowly under the dark dome of the overhead branches.

“A Hospitality Hogan? In this circle of oaks?” replied Stenn thoughtfully. “It’s a good location….three trails cross here. My master has told me also that the presence of a brewer increases traffic to a village.” Stenn was silent for a minute, frowning in thought. Fenn had to remind herself that the boy was not yet fifteen. The apprenticeship had matured him.

“I shall want a share of the business,” replied Stenn at last, “in addition to payment for the ale.”

Fexx laughed aloud with delight.

“And here I thought the young ones would not understand the fine points of trade!”

"See?" teased his wife, "you have acquired knowledge you did not have before!"

The master brewer and his apprentice took their leave and continued on the the Three Valley Gap. Before they left, though, the brewer helped Stenn to hammer out a contract with his grandparents that was of benefit to all parties. He also helped them to set out plans for the many smaller hogans needed for brewing, and where to situate them so the guests would not be assaulted by the smells of fermentation. In the process, the brewer extracted from them another contract to regularly purchase barrels of his own product over the next several years.

“People may want some variety in their beverages,” said the brewer with a small smile. “Stenn is very talented, but the fruit my experience may prove to be to the liking of many of your guests.”

And so the circle of oak trees became a focus of to-ing and fro-ing of family and friends, bringing in tall straight jack-pine trunks to sling as beams, and straight-grained fir trunks to split into planks, of fibres of all kinds to weave into fabric, and twist into ropes. Older grandchildren were put to work carving wooden dowels to secure planks to beams.

The family shepherd made note to try for two seasons of breeding (very tricky in a place where winter comes so soon) to meet the increased demand for mutton.

Fenn was in her glory. Though she had not professed a need for activity in her retirement, this project seemed to have restored her youth. She was everywhere, smiling, cajoling, ordering (!) and praising the workers as each stage of the design was completed.

Fexx, on the other hand, by the passing of the Solstice was having second thoughts, The depletion of the treasure in his storage hogans was becoming significant. If the Hospitality Hogan did not show an immediate profit, his old age was looking to be meager and grim indeed.

Well into the Second Month, the second floor had been secured into the clefts of the trees of the Circle of the Golden Web. Planking had been laid down over the beams for the floor and the family had begun making partitions for the rooms. The hogans of the River People tended to be undivided so that all slept in one space, but they knew that travelers might not want to share their lives with other strangers. There was an impressive staircase of half-split logs, planed and polished so that climbers would not get splinters, with a railing made of twisted bark-rope slung from the vertical posts. As yet there were no sleeping mats and no tables in the main hall for eating or drinking, but they had gone a long way in a short time from a circle of trees to an almost-completed Hospitality Hogan.

Fexx looked upon what his wealth had wrought and felt the burnings of anxiety tickling the back of his brain.

On a foggy night, with wet snow covering the village and forest, Fexx awoke to the sound of frantic voices. At first he thought that sleep was fogging his brain, because he could not make out any meaning in the shouted words. Then he realized that they were shouting in a language he did not understand. He threw a quilt around his shoulders and stepped out into the clinging cold.

There were five men standing in the circle of hogans that housed the extended family. Well, not standing, exactly, as one of them was badly injured and was being supported by another man, clearly exhausted. The other three men were panting, winded, doubled over trying to get their breath.

“Do you know the speech of the River People?” shouted Fexx, as he picked his way hurriedly through the sticky snow underfoot. He was wishing that he had taken the time to put on mukluks before coming out.

“I do,” replied the wounded man. His voice was very faint.

“Hakka! Moon! Come quickly!” called Fexx to his younger sons. Two men in their forties came running from their hogans, having remembered their cloaks and mukluks, wives rushing behind with long hair streaming.

“Wolves,” gasped the wounded man. “Dire wolves in the forest. We only escaped because they took our mules.”

“Looks like they nearly got YOU,” said Hakka, sliding his shoulder under the arm of the wounded man. “Come with us.”

“Take them to the Circle,” said Fexx, teeth chattering from his cold bare feet.

“Good idea,” said Moon. “The doors will keep out anything that might harm the wounded.”

“Wolves!” insisted the wounded man. He reached out with a reluctant hand and gingerly raised the leg of his breeches to show a terrifying gash in his calf. There were obvious teeth marks on his shin.

“Wolves,” agreed the exhausted man who had been carrying the wounded man. He was tall and white-skinned, with white hair, and he spoke with a bizarre nasal twang. Fexx had dealt with these people in his travels. They were Sea People, often unprincipled, ocean-going pirates who drove a hard bargain and then took what they wanted anyway. But this fellow had stayed with his companion, who from his dreadlocks was apparently of the Coastal People. Not the behaviour Fexx had come to expect from Sea People.

“You speak our language, too?” chattered Fexx, now shivering uncontrollably.

“Just a few words,” replied the Sea man with a shy smile. He put out a hand. “Trex,” he said by way of introduction.

Fexx was momentarily confused, then remembered the Sea People greeted one another with the Warrior’s Grip. He took the proffered hand firmly.

“Fexx,” he replied, remembering to make eye contact. Trex had green eyes. It was disconcerting….

They carried the wounded man to the nearly-completed hogan in the Circle of the Golden Web. Fexx , his feet now blue with cold nevertheless went with them. Fenn, having been awakened by the shouting, came running with mukluks and socks for Fexx.

“Silly man!” she chided, obviously worried by both the sudden appearance of the strangers and by the conduct of her husband. “What use to me will you be if you die of the lung sickness?”

The other three men had recovered their breath and were helping as much as they could, conversing among themselves in their own language. The three were wearing identical breeches and tunics of soft dark-brown leather, with leather boots up to the knee. One of the three had some sort of medallion sewn into the left breast of his tunic. They all carried long knives in sheaths at their belt. Blood was dripping from the knife sheath of the man bearing the medallion.

“Who are they?” asked Fexx, when he and Trex had a moment to pause.

Trex winced, obviously embarrassed.

“S-soldiers,” he said, stammering a little with the River People speech. “Law-Giver.”

Fexx felt a chill, even in his less than cozy state. The Law Giver had up to now been a far-away rumour. The Peoples had for many generations governed themselves by tradition and consent. Each village had its own council, and such decisions as seemed to work better than others gradually made their way across the Wild, village to village, until new traditions were born. The Law Giver, with his armies, wanted to make the decisions permanent, written down, the same for the Coastal people as for the Plains People. He called it Justice. Fexx had seen this Justice in practice. There was little room for compassion. Still, Fexx had seen, in places where the different traditions of Clans where in conflict, council decisions that were hasty and later to be regretted. A Law for all would change some of that.

The commotion was attracting a crowd. Fenn had sent to the village for the healer, and she had brought some Singers with her. Their families were naturally curious…but now the curious people were getting in the way.

“You,” Fenn pointed to one of her older grandsons loitering near the small door. “Fetch some ale and pemmican for the travelers. And you,” she pointed to two sturdy grand-daughters, “you bring some firewood.” Fenn turned a commanding eye on her son Hakka. “Is the fireplace safe to use?”

“Yes, mother,” smiled Hakka. “It was made without mortar, so we can fire it up any time.”

As often happened with family projects, Fexx quickly found himself without anything to do, so he sat beside the crackling fire talking with the wounded man. The man’s name was Creek. He was of the Coastal People, but he had broken one of their traditions and had escaped the decision of the clan council by going to sea with the family of Trex.

Trex, son of Taras, it turned out, was the youngest of nine children, therefore unlikely to inherit more than a tenth share in the family ship and the spoils of their piracy. Trex had convinced Creek to become his crew on a small, very fast sloop. They were smuggling certain items of value past the Law Giver’s tax men and making a tidy profit.

“Until we got caught,” said Creek ruefully, grimacing as he shifted his bandaged leg. He paused briefly to gaze at the crackling fire and rubbed his hands appreciatively in the warmth. “These soldiers were taking us to the Three Valley Gap to meet with the main battle group.”

“Battle group??! With whom were they doing battle?!” In Fifty years of travelling the Three Valleys and beyond, Fexx had never seen a conflict that required a full battle group.

“None yet,” chuckled Creek, still trying to find a comfortable position. “East of the plains there are People who don’t wish to have their traditions, um, ‘improved’ by a set of written-down Laws. The Law Giver has been visiting them with soldiers to show that his way deserves a fair try.”

“We do things a little differently here,” smiled Fexx. “If we don’t like the way things are going, we just melt away into the deep, dark mysterious woods and start up again. And,” he noted with a snort, “we take our traditions with us!”

“Coastal People, as you may have noticed, “ rejoined Creek with a grin, “are different again. We agree to almost anything, then we do what we would have done anyway! We’ll even put together a system of courts like the Law Giver commands; they just won’t ever see any trials….”

“Apparently YOU will see a trial,” said Fexx gently.

“Well, I am not innocent of the charges,” replied Creek rubbing his head ruefully. “Also, we have committed another crime in the eyes of Taras, father of Trex: We got caught!”

Chuckling, Fexx rose to attend to the other “guests”. Creek reached out to catch the corner of the blanket Fexx was wearing as a cloak.

“These soldiers are good folk,” said Creek earnestly. “The blood dripping from that fellow’s knife sheath is from the wolf that bit me. He saved me. Stabbed the wolf until it let go.”

Fexx left the prisoner warming himself beside the fire and went to speak to the medallioned soldier.

“Wolves?” said Fexx doubtfully.

“Big wolves!” replied the soldier in broken People speech. “No BIG wolves, here, me think.”

“You think right!” replied Fexx in Trade Tongue, a sort of baby-talk version of People Speech. “No big wolves, many many years. You get bite?” Fexx pointed to blood on the soldier’s sleeve.

“No,” the soldier smiled rather shyly. He held up the bloodied sleeve. “Wolf-blood.”

Fexx pointed to the bandaged man by the fire.

“Creek is grateful,” he said.

“Not travel, five days,” sighed the soldier. “We stay?”

“You stay,” agreed Fexx. “You pay?”

“Two sovereigns , five days?” asked the soldier.

Fexx smiled. Bargaining in Trade Tongue. He had missed this.

Five days later, the soldiers and their captives left on the trail through the woods to the Three Valley Gap. A small cluster of farms there served as a gathering place for expeditions across the plains or into the mountains. There were resources there for them, not to mention the battle group with whom they were to rendezvous. In the mean-time, Fexx and Fenn had negotiated a fair price for their hospitality AND had sold the soldiers new mules and provisions. A fair profit and happy customers: the lifeblood of the tradesman.

“I was anxious about the Hospitality Hogan,” remarked Fexx as they watched their family put the finishing touches on the guest quarters.

“I never had any doubts,” said Fenn lightly, which by experience Fexx knew meant that she had simply ignored such doubts.

“Still, it shows the cleverness of my wife,” replied Fexx. “It is a good idea. More travelers will come. Our children will have another trade on which to rely for income. The Law Giver will hear of our hospitality. It is a good thing.”

“And perhaps you will cease to perplex me with ideas on how to occupy us during our retirement,” Fenn laughed. The delighted peal echoed off the walls of the Hospitality Hogan, and vanished into the leafy crown.

At that moment a foot-sore fellow carrying a huge backpack stumbled in through the newly hung front-doors.

“Is this an inn?” he gasped. “I badly need a place to rest. I was afraid to camp with all the wolves howling in the deep wood! I've been walking for almost a day and a night!”

“This is indeed an inn,” replied Fexx graciously. “May we serve you a mug of ale?”

“If I may drink it by your most excellent fire,” replied the man with obvious relief, “then certainly!”

In the morning, as the man was hoisting his pack to leave, he asked: “What is the name of this place?”

“We call it the Circle of the Golden Web,” replied Fexx.

“Hmmmm,” said the man, thinking out loud. “Too long….I’ll tell my friends to look out for the drunken oak in the clearing.”

And so it went. In another year, young Stenn had returned as a journeyman to set up the brewery for the Hospitality Hogan. His obligation to his master required that he spend part of the year back at the parent brewery, but he was able to bring quite a few batches of most excellent ale to maturity right there by his own village. The ale became as famous as the miraculous trees of which the inn was constructed, and the “Drunken Oak” in the clearing was as good an advertisement as they ever needed to identify their inn.

One sultry summer night Fexx was awakened by the moon shining in through the door of the small hogan that was now their home. Sleep would not come, no matter how he hid his head from the moonlight. Fexx arose and went out into the clearing, now surrounded by many, many hogans of his married children and married grandchildren. Torches burned outside the doors of the Hospitality Hogan, to show that late arrivals were welcome. In the grass at his feet, the earthworms were busily casting their mounds amid the grass blades, clearly visible in the bright moonlight.

Suddenly, from a gap in the trees across the clearing emerged an enormous albino elk, snorting flames and prancing sideways toward Fexx. The old man was rooted to the ground, and could only watch as the apparition swerved toward him, its white coat and mane gleaming like silver under the full moon. The great elk shoved its pink muzzle up to Fexx’s face, blowing steam from its nostrils.

“Well,” said the elk in the well-remembered baritone voice. “How do you like the peddler’s bargain?”

“B-b-b-bargain?” stammered Fexx, bewildered as well as fairly frightened. He had no idea these creatures would come when they hadn’t been summoned.

“The inn for your song,” explained the elk, flames dancing in the depths of its huge eyes. “Are you pleased? You get to help people, you make a profit, you keep busy in your retirement, your children’s children have a lasting legacy.” It puffed a rather scalding blast at Fexx, who wiped condensed water from his eyebrows.

“I-I am very pleased,” replied Fexx, stammering again, this time more from perplexity than from nervousness. “Why do you care?”

“The Balance is maintained,” bugled the elk, sounding more like a real elk. It turned abruptly, shook its long pale mane vigorously and pranced back into the forest.

“What’s all this noise?” Fenn was leaning sleepily against the door-post of their hogan.

“Oh,” replied Fexx, “ it’s just the Guardian of the Gate of the Unseen World.”

“Ah,” said Fenn, yawining. “I thought it might be customers.” She yawned again. “I’m going back to bed.”

“Sleep well my darling,” replied Fexx, kissing her cheek affectionately. “I think I’ll stay up for a while.”

Fexx smiled and gazed up at the moon. Far off in the deep wood, a single wolf howled.

Friday, July 2, 2010


Where the three valleys meet there is now a town, but once it was quite wild and dark. Where now it is winding streets and comfortable houses with small gardens, much of it was forest, and where the trees had been cleared to create meadows there were often wild creatures at their repose amongst the sheep and cattle. There were farms, to be sure, and some of them almost large enough to be towns, with cooks and milk-maids and hay-men, and apple-boys and goat herds, and seamstresses to keep them all, even the maids, in trousers. There were small-holdings, too, sometimes with just a cranky bachelor and his five kine, or a hard-working couple just getting started , and their wooden plough and scrawny horse. It was not strange for the small-holder to find, at days end when he went to bring in the cows, that a stag and its does had been grazing quietly among the herd.

The soil was good, freshly won from the wilderness, black and rich-smelling as a new rye-loaf, and the rains came then as they do now, in the morning as the fog drifts down the mountains, and in the evening as the wind sweeps down the valleys. But around the pastures and furrowed croplands was the deep, tall forest, dark and menacingly green, full of fearsome noises and inexplicable odours. Cattle pastured too near the forest edge would dwindle in number by ones and twos, leaving neither blood nor manure to show how they had gone. Sheep that strayed near the woods might leave a couple of clumps of wool on the thorn bushes, but they, too, would vanish quietly and without bleat nor baa-ah. Chickens had to be cooped up at night, with thorn branches to keep out the stoats and foxes.

There were people who entered the forests frequently, courageous people drawn by the fine straight lumber of the evergreens, or by rumours of gold in the streams that feed the three rivers. There were others in the forest, not so much courageous as desperate, driven there by crimes committed or by the need to be alone. Those drawn to the forest by their own folly often met the same fate as the hapless sheep, or escaped with wild-eyed tales of terrors only half-seen or half-heard among the ancient trees.

There was also the peddler. The peddler moved in and out of forest and farmland, patient mule plodding along beside or behind, as if the forest and the farmland were the same. The peddler seemed equally out of place in either setting, finding things to sell or trade wherever people would stop and haggle. Lumberjacks up a tree deep in the forest would spot the bent figure and the long-suffering mule far below winding between the huge boles of the eternal trees. Waving from the tree-tops, they would see only a flick of a hand as the peddler passed below. People had gotten used to the peddler, had become dependent on the peculiar goods the mule carried, and most had become accustomed to the shuffling gait, the grating voice, the laughter that seemed to come from deep in the earth. The peddler was like the forest, like the rich soil, like the rains. That their father’s fathers had also known the peddler seemed not to even cause a ripple in the minds of the folk of the three valleys. They were not stupid folk, they just knew better than to pry: they needed the peddler. The peddler seemed also to need them.

There was a day when the peddler was very deep in the forest, at the foot of a tall bluff that cast a shadow even into the eternal green twilight of the forest floor. It was late in the day, later than the even peddler liked to be so deep in the wild woods, where the darkness fell more quickly because of the high cliff that rose steeply to the west, but this was where the mandrake grew, and this was the time of day to harvest it. The peddler was wearing wax earplugs to shut out the screams of the roots as they were pulled out of the ground, so the dire-wolf was nearly upon the peddler before the peddler saw it. The peddler stepped closer to the frantic mule to calm it, sparing a rueful moment to remember what fool had thought to introduce the dire-wolves to these woods. The peddler knew what fool it was: it had seemed a good idea at the time....

On the cliff above, there was a different sort of desperation.

Frederick, known to his bar-fly friends as “Fred the Fool”, had fallen in with a band of rogues in the town of High Rapid. A night of revelry had resulted in their urgent departure from High Rapid via the forest road, the river port being blocked by a large contingent of town-folk bent on retribution. The forest road cannot be traversed in a day, so a tavern had been built for the safety of those who find themselves in the dark woods with the dim green light fading to absolute black. The tavern, known variously as The Empty Purse, The Empty Curse and the Drunken Oak, was by virtue of location and reputation a hangout for rough characters who, while preferring the company of the dark trees and the fell creatures of the dismal wood nonetheless felt the occasional need of a night of drinking, gambling and other debauchery.

Frederick had found himself embroiled, almost against his will in a game of Three Queens . In the card-game “Three Queens”, the Fairy Queen is placed face up on the table for a value of 39 points (three times thirteen, which is an auspicious combination in the Three Valleys). The other hands are dealt and wagers are made as to the ability of the players to approximate 39 points. Each of the other three Queens (Warrior, Scholar, Merchant) is worth thirteen, so whomever has any two or all three wins automatically.

“That’s quite a purse you have won, there,” remarked Wasp, one of Fred’s companions from High Rapid. “And you seem to be adding to it.”

Fred blushed even while trying to keep his game face.

“Luck does seem an unlikely companion for such as our friend,” growled Stone, sitting opposite Fred. Stone, who had been losing for the last three hands, was not one of Fred’s companions. He was a wanderer, a thug whose weapon of choice was a long staff of yew set on one end with a complexly -carved knot of serpentine.

“Deal again,” said Stone, danger glinting from his pale eyes, “and we shall see whether luck is fickle.”

Frederick picked up his cards, arranged them, saw what he had, quaffed a swallow from his flagon to conceal the lump of dismay in his throat.

Stone threw a coin onto the table.

“Ten”. A standard opening wager.

‘Ten,” agreed Dancer, their fourth player, who threw in a coin.

“Ten,” said Fred, his voice quavering.

“Twenty,” said Wasp, calmly, throwing in two coins.

“Twenty,” said Stone and Dancer, throwing in coins.

“I’m out,” said Fred, laying down his cards face down.

“Really?” said Wasp, sympathetically. He reached for the hand face-down on the table. “Let’s see how badly luck has abandoned you.”

“,” said Fred, rising from his place. “I just have to piss...”

Wasp turned over the cards.

“Freddy-boy, this is a winning hand! Three Queens!”

“And one of them is the Fairy Queen!” said Dancer, who had passed the additional Fairy Queen to Fred in the last deal.

“Two Fairy Queens!” said Stone quietly. “I thought someone was draining my purse. You little bastard!” Stone reached for his staff.

Frederick leapt backward as the serpentine knot missed his nose by a hair, upsetting his chair and shoving the patron behind him violently into the bar. Pursued now by two large and angry thugs, Fred made a dive for the door and fled into the woods down a deer path that led past the outhouse. Stone disappeared around the curve of the path, staff at the ready.

“He does know there’s a cliff there,” said Wasp, who had paused only long enough to deposit Fred’s purse into his pack. There was a long ululating scream that faded into the night.

“He does now....” said Dancer.

Stone returned along the path wearing a scowl. “Luck appears to have deserted our friend,” he grunted. “Too bad - I could have used the work-out.”

Wasp stretched and yawned a jaw-cracking yawn. “Well, no use looking for his remains in the dark.”

“Or at all,” said Dancer, who had filched Wasp’s purse during the commotion in the bar. “The dire-wolves will have worried his carcass to shreds by morning.”

“To bed then?” asked Wasp.
“Aye,” agreed Dancer. “Hit the trail early, arrive in good time....”

Fred the Fool, in panic, had run blindly right over the edge of the cliff above, hurtling screaming down thirty feet directly onto the leaping snarling dire-wolf. The two of them arrived in a tangled heap at the feet of the astonished peddler, deafened to the world, to the screams of the mandrake, of Fred and the now mortally-injured dire-wolf.

It is said that the Gods, for their own amusement, protect fools and charlatans. Fred the Fool lay for a few moments in great pain across the still-twitching body of the dire-wolf.

“Ouch,” said Frederick.

“Interesting,” said the peddler, removing the second ear-plug. “You live...”

“OUCH!” said Frederick, rather more emphatically, as he experimentally tried to move various appendages. “Yes,” he moaned, “ I live. Or else death is rather less restful than we are led to believe.”

“The wolf is dead, I think....”

“Wolf.....?” replied Frederick faintly

“Yes,” replied the peddler, with a voice like an oboe full of sand. “It was about to attack when you killed it. I owe you a debt.”

“Wolf...killed?” mumble Fred in confusion. He was still trying to make sense of the stars dancing against the darkness of the wood. Gradually his head cleared.

“Come, friend,” said the peddler, extending a bony hand to raise Fred from the tangle of fur and limbs. “Let’s build a fire and try to keep away any other members of the pack.”

The thin arms were deceptively strong, and in moments Fred was propped against the bole of a huge elm while the cloaked figure assembled wood for a fire.

“That shoulder doesn’t look right,” said the peddler, once the flames were flickering cheerfully. “Let me have a look.”

Strong bony fingers probed Fred’s left shoulder. Fred groaned in pain.

“Dislocated....hmmmm....” said the peddler. Strong arms twisted Fred’s shoulder and rotated Fred’s left arm. There was a loud “CLICK!”, accompanied by a shriek from Fred that brought shivers to the bar-keeper using the outhouse on the cliff above.

The peddler rummaged in the pack beside the patient mule and produced pots and mugs. Soon, there was suspended over the fire a simmering pot of a fragrant broth. The peddler sprinkled some dried herbs into a mug of the broth and gave it to Fred.

“Drink that,” oboed the peddler. “Then sleep.”

When Fred awoke the next morning, the green light filtering through the leaves was bright enough to illuminate the flayed remains of the dire-wolf beside the burned-out fire. The mule waited near-by, bearing the camp-goods neatly stowed in the peddler’s pack.

“Arise,” said the peddler abruptly. “And come with me. We must find the road and get you out of the wood.”

“My shoulder...” said Fred, flexing his left arm tentatively. The pain was gone. The muscles were not even stiff.

“Better, Yes?” said the peddler. The peddler led the mule out of the clearing, down a deer-path Fred had not previously seen. “Come, now.”

Fred stumbled along the path behind the peddler. The peddler made no noise despite walking with what seemed to be a pronounced limp. Even the mule seemed to pick its hoofprints so as to make little sound, in contrast to crunching and twig-snapping that accompanied Fred’s passage along the path. Soon they came to the main road through the wood. The light was considerably brighter, here, where the tree canopy did not overhang the road so thickly as it did over the deer-path.

“I leave you here,” said the peddler. “I have business at the tavern. You must go to the Three Valleys. This is for you.” The peddler shoved a soft bundle into Fred’s hands. “It is the skin of the dire wolf you killed.”

“Thank you,” stammered Frederick. “But why...”

“Wear the skin,” replied the peddler, and the oboe-like voice deepened unexpectedly to cracked bassoon. “While you wear the skin, no-one may refuse you any request, and no harm may come to you.”

“Thank you,” stammered Frederick, again. “But why...”

“I don’t like an unpaid debt,” replied the peddler, voice now deepening to something more like gravel in a wooden washtub. “Also, unused magic has unpredictable consequences. I used the manna of the dire-wolf specifically for this spell, which is a more predictable use of the magic and will dispel it uniformly.”

“Thank you,” stammered Frederick. “But...”

“Go now,” growled the gravel basso. “You may tailor the skin to suit your taste without diminishing the spell. But now, you go THAT way, and I go THIS way. Fare well.”
The peddler limped off into the wood. Frederick clutched the rolled-up wolf-skin to his middle and walked the other way into the brightening path that led out of the forest.

By and by, Fred the Fool rounded a bend in the road bounded on both sides by huge elms thicker through the trunk than a man’s outstretched arms. A giant ivory-billed woodpecker drummed a breakfast tattoo on the far tree,, extracting a fat grub and distracting Fred from the presence of a she-bear and twin cubs on his side of the road. The bear rose to her full height on her hind legs and roared angrily as the twin cubs tumbled to hide behind her.

Fred, to his credit, did not soil himself, although his fear was great. He remembered what the peddler had said, in fact he seemed to hear the grinding basso voice repeating “ - no harm can come to you - ” as Fred fumbled with the package the peddler had given him. Somehow Fred shook the wolf-pelt loose and draped it around his shoulders.

The bear looked puzzled, and dropped to all fours again, still guarding her little ones.

“Le-“ Fred’s voice broke with anxiety. He cleared his throat.

“Let me pass,” Fred enunciated on his second try, “please”. Fred could not say why he said “Please” to the bear, except that the bear was very large and dangerous, like most of Fred’s acquaintances and not without dignity, UNlike most of Fred’s acquaintances.

The bear cuffed her cubs gently to the far side of the road and into the green gloom.

“This time....” said the bear. She spoke with a menacing tenor voice that Fred understood clearly. He also understood that she obeyed against her will and better judgment, and not without resentment. All this he comprehended from two words from an animal not known to speak.

Fred passed in front of the she-bear, close enough to smell the berries on her breath, close enough to see the burs in her fur as she turned to follow her cubs into the underbrush. The wood-pecker hammered the bark of the enormous elm again. It cocked its outrageous head to look at Fred the Fool.

“Wisdom,” cackled the woodpecker, “is like a nail driven in to the head.”

“You would know,” replied Fred without thinking. Then, in astonishment at what had just happened, Fred asked, more or less rhetorically: “Does the wolf-skin let me understand the beasts??”

But the wood-pecker just laughed its normal wood-pecker laugh and flew off on enormous black and white wings into the dark-green wood.

Fred wore the wolf-pelt for a long while as he made his way along the forest road, but soon it became too warm to wear fur, and Fred also noticed that the pelt smelled funny. What it smelled like he could never really say. It did NOT smell the way a skin removed only hours ago from the still-warm carcass ought to smell. It had been rendered cleaned and flexible by some process he could not fathom, perhaps some technique known only to the peddler for tanning green hides over night. Fred shrugged out of the fur and carefully rolled it up so as to carry it tucked under his right arm. After a few steps he switched the rolled-up pelt to his left arm, he couldn’t say why, and continued on his way through the forest.

After a while, Fred became hungry. He was at a loss as to what to do about that until he came upon a flock of grouse dust-bathing in a sunlit spot on the road. Fred unrolled the wolf-pelt and draped it over his shoulders. Rather to his surprise, the chittering of the grouse did not change to intelligible language. Nonetheless, Fred stepped forward and, as the grouse made to fly away he said: “Stay.”

The grouse all dropped back to the road. And stood looking intently at him.

“Please,” said Fred “Feed me”.

As one, the flock converged on one bird and pecked it to death, standing aside so Fred could take the carcass.

“Thank-you,” said Fred, shaken and chagrined. He had expected them to lay eggs for him to eat. He picked up the limp dead grouse and stepped off the road into a nearby clearing. Fred took the dead grouse and skinned it inexpertly, having left his knife and other utensils behind when he fled the Drunken Oak tavern.

Aha....thought fire...raw grouse...hungry as he was, the thought made him gag.

“Give me fire,” said Fred, experimentally, to the air. A moderately-sized limb came crashing through the canopy to the clearing in which Fred sat. After waiting to ensure that no other missiles would rain from above, Fred inspected the branch. It was dry wood, covered with loose bark and sphagnum moss. Fred the Fool he might be, but Frederick knew how to build a fire, given the right materials. He teased a long thread out of the hem his tunic and used a flexible sapling from the margin of the clearing to make a crude bow-drill. After fifteen minutes or so of hard work, Fred had a small smoker established, which he fed with bark and broken twigs until the fire was well on its way.

There was a rustling sound in the bushes beside the clearing. Fred looked up quickly to see a live female grouse watching as he cooked the dead grouse over his fire.

“Knowledge without wisdom is like a thorn in the hand,” chittered the grouse, and it vanished into the underbrush. Fred was breaking a long branch into kindling and felt a sharp pain in his left hand. There was a thorn the size of a thimble embedded in Fred’s palm. He winkled the thorn eventually out of his flesh, with a small flow of blood that was easily licked away, but Fred was intrigued with the perfect shape of it. Almost like the claw of a cat, was the thorn. Fred dropped the thorn into the pocket of his trousers. The branch itself had been covered with these thorns, and it crackled merrily in the fire.

Frederick became warm sitting by the fire he had built. Fred put aside the wolf-skin, taking care to roll it up the way the peddler had done. He decided that the grouse was properly cooked and ate it gingerly right off the branch he had used for a spit. Drowsiness came over him like a flood of darkness. Fred lay down beside the fire, pillowing is head on the rolled-up wolf-pelt.

Fred awoke in some dismay, knowing that darkness was approaching (in the dense forest, darkness comes before night falls) and that he should have kept traveling instead of sleeping by his fire. The fire had burned out, leaving a bowl of charred wood and ash. Fred had remembered to put the remains of his dinner in the fire before he slept. Two things were odd about that:
1) he HAD remembered and
2) he had known why it was a good idea, i.e. to discourage forays by scavengers into his camp site. Yesterday, he realized, he would not have given it any thought.

Voices from the nearby road brought him to the realization that he might travel with companions and fare better that as a lone traveler. Fred arose and approached the path. Among the travelers, head and shoulders taller, was Stone. Having only tested the “no harm will come to you” aspect of the wolf-pelt in the encounter with the she-bear, Frederick was unwilling to put it to a test with Stone, although Stone was arguably not smarter than the bear.

Fred shook out his wolf-pelt and draped it over his head. He looked about in panic. A chipmunk sate on a nearby branch.

“Hide me,” said Fred to the chipmunk.

“I cannot,” squeaked the chipmunk. “Ask the midges.”

Fred looked up to see a swarm of midges in a column above his dead fire-pit.

“Hide me,” said Fred to the midges.

The swarm of tiny insects moved to shield Frederick from the path.

“Beeeeee smaaaalllllerrrrrr,” hummed the swarm in their multitude of tiny voices.

Frederick squatted down on his heels so that the wolf pelt covered all of him. The swarm of midges thickened, more midges came out of the forest and clustered around Fred’s face. Frederick had difficulty resisting the urge to swat away the insects as they spun, and hovered and wove their tiny excursions into a dense cloud until the party on the path had passed Fred and disappeared around the corner. Before the midges lifted and dissipated into the trees, Frederick heard them whisper:

“Wisdom comes from valuing the sma-a-a-a-l-l-l-l-l......”

Now Frederick was faced with a conundrum. If he continued on the road through the wood he might overtake the party in which Stone was a companion. At the same time he dared not spend another night in the wood. He could sleep with the wolf-pelt as a coverlet and “no harm would come to him”, but he might , in his sleep, throw off the cover and be left to the mercy of the beasts of the night. He pondered on the chipmunk who, lacking the resources to oblige his request, nonetheless was able to advise him on the next best course of action. Frederick glanced around. A sparrow was hopping down the road, snatching up beetles.

Frederick stepped into the road.

“Stay,” he said to the sparrow. The little bird refrained from taking wing, although it hopped about continuously as if to confuse an unseen predator. “Show me the quickest way out of the forest that does not take me on this road.”

“I cannot,” replied the sparrow, in obvious anxiety. “Ask the fox.”

“Fox, show yourself,” said Frederick to the air. A dog-fox glided out of the shadows. “Stay,” said Frederick to the fox.

“Fly, now,” said Frederick to the sparrow, “ and thank-you.”

The sparrow fled with all haste, leaving a large turd on the path.

“Fox,” said Frederick, “Show me the quickest way out of the forest that does not take me on this road.”

“Follow,” said the fox in a disconcerting baritone. The fox led Frederick on a deer-path that branched many times until Frederick was unsure as to the direction he was finally facing when the wood suddenly gave way to a wide pasture. There was a hen house made of woven willow withes not a stone’s throw from the forest edge. Seven hens were still pecking in the yard despite the setting sun.

“Thank you,” said Fred, who was beginning to see that politeness might mitigate the hostility the forest creatures had been showing him.

“The sparrow would have been my supper,” commented the fox, eyeing the hens craftily.

Fred’s heart sank within him, just a little. Hens were raised to be food, after all...

“Hens,” said Fred. “Please, feed the fox.”

One by one the hens came to the fox and each laid an egg before running squawking to the hen-house.

The fox gobbled down the eggs, shell and all. Then it vanished into the shadows, seeming not to move at all.

One of the hens remained at the door of the hen-house.

“Wisdom,” clucked the hen, “widens the world.” Then it, too, vanished without seeming to move, into the darkened chicken coop.

Frederick was much relieved to have left the eldritch woods but now the night was falling around him in earnest. He had evidently emerged from the wood on a smallholding that included, besides the chicken coop, a sturdy pole barn, a grain silo made of clay bricks and a log house that might comfortably house a family of three. One does not willingly spend a night under the stars, although, when he thought on it Frederick realized that he had already weathered, as it were, a night and a short nap in the forest. There might be less trouble sleeping in the barn than asking for permission. But the barn had evidently not been cleaned in a while, as the smell was unpleasant even by Frederick’s standards.

He shrugged the wolf-pelt unconsciously around his shoulders and suddenly realized he was still wearing it. Well....put it to the test, he thought...Frederick knocked on the sturdy wooden door to the log house. The door was swung ajar with difficulty by a small boy whose tousled hair rather obscured the wide-eyed and hostile stare with which he greeted the visitor. In his left hand the boy held a long kitchen knife.

“Please,” said Frederick, rather taken aback at this tiny warrior. “Please, I need a place to sleep for the night. Please let me in.”

The boy stepped back and jerked his head sideways to indicate reluctant assent. He pointed with the knife to a rough-hewn table surrounded by three-legged stools. An oil lamp had been lit and placed on the table.

“Sit,” said the boy. His tone was neutral, but his gaze was still wary.

Frederick looked around the log house. Here, too, there was evidence that not many chores had been done in several days. If there were adults around, thought Fred, they must be ill, or injured. The boy was clean enough, himself, but the floor needed sweeping, and there was dirty laundry piled near the door, waiting to be taken to the stream, or pond. The boy had returned to the chopping block where he was using the long, wicked-looking knife to worry a slice from a very hard lump of cheese.

“Let me help,” said Fred. The boy reluctantly handed Fred the knife. Fred took the knife and, with some effort, sliced three slices from the lump of cheese. The knife was very dull. Without thinking, Fred looked around and located a sharpening stone on a stand near the wash-basin. There was water in the wash-basin, so Fred wet the stone and worked the blade on the wet stone until the edge was tolerable Then he cleaned the blade and set it back on the block beside the cheese.

“Thanks,” said the boy, who was already gnawing on one of the cheese chunks. His hostility seemed to be waning.

“Is your mother sick?” asked Fred, returning to the table to sit down.

“She has a new baby,” said the boy, in the same neutral tone. His eyes shifted ever so lightly to the door set into the wall opposite the exterior door. “New baby, just yesterday.”

“And your father?”

“Dead,” said the boy. “He fell from a tree. Buried last week.”

“I’m very sorry,” said Fred. And he was. This tough little man somehow evoked in Fred a sympathy of which he had thought himself incapable. “Have you other food?” he asked.

“Can you pay?” asked the boy, raising one eyebrow at Fred’s obvious lack of resources.

“I can work,” said Fred.

“Too bad,” said the boy sadly, showing emotion for the first time. “I can make some tea. We have nothing. Well...the cheese, and some oatmeal...and the chickens.”

Fred thought about that for a few minutes. He had cost the family some valuable resources by feeding the day’s eggs to the fox.

Fred, though foolish, was not by nature a villain. He preferred the company of villains, but that was because they put up with his silliness in exchange for his tolerance of their cruelty. Kind-hearted people were always trying to teach Fred things, and in their forbearance they were often more cruel than the wicked folk. Fred was not so much stupid as slow to acquire the skills of everyday life.

He heard a scuttling in the corner. Hmmmm....a rat? He turned to the sound.

“Rat,” said Fred. “Come out here.”

The boy stared in amazement as a large and healthy-looking rat ambled out into the pool of lamplight.

“Rat,” said Fred. “Do you know where there is an onion?”

“Yes,” said the rat. It stood on its hind legs sniffing the air of the kitchen as if this were an unfamiliar perspective.

“Here?” asked Fred.

“No,” said the rat. It shifted nervously on its hind legs, and glanced apprehensively at the boy, who was sidling toward the broom.

“Do not harm the rat,” said Fred. The boy stopped.

“Fetch the onion,” said Fred.

An owl hooted outside. Fred stood and opened the door. The rat scooted out the open door as Fred stepped out into the humid dark.

“Owl,” said Fred. “Come here.”

A huge great-horned owl flew out of the dark and landed rather clumsily in the pool of light thrown by the lamp out the open door

“Owl,” said Fred. “What can you bring me that these people will eat.”

“Can they eat a skunk?” said the owl.

“No,” said Fred. “I am sorry. No skunks.”

“A porcupine, then?” said the owl, speculatively.

“Yes,” said Fred, beginning to get an idea. This business of ideas coming into his head was disconcerting, and exhilarating. “If you can get one fresh, please bring me a porcupine.”

The owl launched itself into the dark. Fred stood there feeling foolish. He had forgotten to ask when the owl would return, how the owl would make itself known. Just as these thoughts were rattling around in his head, the owl returned with a fat porcupine in its claws and dropped the lifeless beast at Fred’s feet.

“Have I cost you your supper?” asked Fred.

“No,” hooted the owl. “I nailed a fat rat on the way back with the porcupine.”

“Was the rat carrying an onion?” asked Fred with some frustration.

“Yes,” replied the owl. Fred had another idea.

“Bring me the onion,” said Fred. The owl returned in a minute with a large over-ripe onion in its claws.

“Sorry about the onion smell,” said Fred.

“No worse than skunk,” said the owl, and flew away into the twittering dark. As the owl departed, Fred thought he heard it call: “Wisdom considers what might happen next.”

Fred gingerly picked up the porcupine carcass and the onion and went back inside, closing the door tightly behind him. The boy had started a fire in the hearth and had put a kettle of water over the flames to boil.

“Can you pluck a porcupine?” asked Fred.

The boy’s eyes lit up.

“Yes,” he said. “This I can do.”

He sat down on the tallest of the four stools and set to plucking the quills from the cooling carcass of the porcupine, carefully laying them parallel on the table-top, at arm’s length so they wouldn’t accidentally poke his working hands. Fred put aside the wolf-pelt, carefully rolling it up as before and peeled the onion. Then he chopped the onion coarsely on the block beside the cheese. It was a large onion. By the time he was finished, the boy had finished removing the quills from the porcupine and was wrapping them in a small piece of cured buckskin.

“You’ve done this before,” said Fred, smiling.

“Yes,” the boy, smiling back shyly. “Mother makes things with the quills.”

Fred wondered about that. What would a farm wife make with porcupine quills? But that could wait. He fetched the knife from the cheese block and set to skinning and gutting the dead porcupine. The boy took the skin of the porcupine and rubbed cold ashes from the bucket by the hearth on the raw surface of the hide. When the ashes were thick on the inside and the raw surface was dry, he rolled up the skin and put it aside away from the heat of the hearth. Meanwhile, Fred had cut up the porcupine meat and had separated the fat from the kidneys.

Fred found a big iron skillet, put another log on the fire, and heated the skillet over the flames in the hearth.. He melted the kidney fat in the skillet and used it to brown the chopped onion. Then he dropped the porcupine pieces into the heated, spicy fat and cooked them until they were done. The boy had made some tea. Fred took the water that remained in the kettle and poured it over the porcupine meat and onions.

“You did say there was some oatmeal,” asked Fred.

The boy hesitated, and Fred became rather acutely aware that he was no longer wearing the wolf-pelt.

“I just want a handful,” said Fred.

The boy fetched a clay jar half-full of oatmeal. Fred took his handful of the oatmeal and carefully stirred it into the broth in the skillet.
The door in the interior wall opened to reveal a young woman wearing a homespun gown and apron, hurriedly tied around her, and her black hair loose around her shoulders. She had her new baby wrapped in a shawl and slung across her breasts. Her feet she had slipped into a pair of buckskin slippers. Fred tried not to stare at her feet, but the slippers were extravagantly decorated with brightly-coloured beads of some kind. Porcupine-quill beads.

“What in the world?” asked the woman sleepily. “Who are you?”
Fred looked up happily from the skillet.

“He’s some kind of wizard,” said the boy, stepping protectively between the woman and Fred.

“Actually,” said Fred. “My friends, such as they are, call me Fred the Fool, and they treat me as such.”

“He told an owl to bring us our supper,” replied the boy accusingly.

“Oh, now really,” said his mother, crossing to the hearth and bending carefully over the skillet. “An owl brought us porcupine stew?!”

“Well,” said Fred, “I made the stew, and your son helped prepare the meat.”

“Where did you find an onion?” the woman asked, looking at the boy.

“He told a rat to bring it,” said the boy.

“Well,” smiled Fred, “That is true, although the owl delivered it.”

“He has such a wonderful imagination,” said the woman, sitting at the table. She held out a hand to Fred. “I am Polan. My friends, such as they are, call me ‘the widow Polan’ . ”

“Your son was telling me,” replied Fred solemnly. “I am truly sorry.” He took her hand and bowed his head formally in the custom of his people.

“To what do we owe this kindness?” asked Polan with a wave of her hand to the food simmering on the hearth.

“I was lost in the forest,” replied Fred truthfully enough. “I came to your door asking for help, and your son negotiated a trade of my labour for a place to sleep.” He brought the hot stew over to the table. “Bowls?”

The boy magicked some wooden bowls from under the table and began ladling the stew into them. Then he found some clay cups and poured tea for the three of them.

“Tomorrow,” said Fred, “with your permission, I will clean out the barn and have a look at the silo.”
“Nothing is wrong with the silo,” said Polan archly. “Although the barn could indeed use some attention.”

“I think I know where to find a fine fat bull snake to keep the rats out of the silo,” replied Fred, smiling over his bowl of stew, which had turned out very well, considering the manner of its making.

“Why don’t you just ask the rats to leave?” asked the boy, genuinely curious.

“It doesn’t work like that,” said Fred, beginning to wonder it that was true. “At least, I don’t think it does. I’m sort of new to the sorcery business.”

“Please do NOT encourage T’Reece,” said Polan in exasperation. “You have no idea how many unicorns I have to chase out of the garden because he can see them and I apparently can’t.”

Polan arose with difficulty from her place and took some hesitant steps toward her door.

“Well,” she said, suddenly weary, “Thanks to your delicious meal I now have a meal for young S’Arenne here, so I will bid you good night. T’Reece can sleep in my bed, so he can show you his bed tonight.” She closed the door behind her.

“You are from up-river, then?” asked Fred. “The prefixes...”

“I’m from here,” replied T’Reece. “Born in this house. But my father was from High Rapid.” He pulled back a quilt from a cot on the floor in the corner. “You can sleep here.”

“I can sleep on my wolf-pelt by the fire,” said Fred. “I don’t need to put you out of your bed.”

“If it’s all the same,” smiled T’Reece, “I’ll sleep better with my mum and sister than with some animal-talking stranger.” T’Reece slipped into his mother’s chamber and closed the door.

Fred looked around him. A lot of the debris on the floor was just accumulated detritus of living, dust-bunnies and such. Fred pulled his wolf-pelt around his shoulders.

“Mice,” said Fred. “Come out.”

Twenty grey and white mice came out and sat in a semi-circle around Fred’s feet.

“Two things I ask of you,” said Fred. “Well...three...the first you have done by coming out. Second: clean out all of the trash that you can carry from the floor and put it outside on the compost pile. Third: each of you bring me five strong straws so I can make a new broom.”

The mice all flinched in unison as Fred reached over to the cutting board. He fetched the remaining chunk of cheese that he had cut earlier, and he crumbled it on the floor.

“This should reward you for your efforts,” he said.

“There is really no need,” said the largest mouse. “The damn magic forces us to help you regardless.”

“I know,” sighed Fred. “But I like to be polite, anyway.”

“Hmmmph!” squeaked the big mouse, and they all scurried away to do Fred’s bidding. In the morning, though, there were two hundred straws of the best quality by Fred’s feet, twice what he had asked the mice to bring.

In the morning, Fred poured himself a mug of cold tea from supper and stepped out into the dew-laden dawn with the wolf-pelt around his shoulders. For once he was glad of the extra warmth, as there was a keening wind that brought tears to his eyes. He walked out to the hen house.

“Hens,” he called out softly. “Is there chicken feed stored near-by?”

One elderly hen poked her head out past the flap of homespun that hung over the door of the hen-house.

“It’s locked up in the barn,” she clucked. And she popped back into the warm hen-house.

Fred went to the barn and shifted the bar from the small door. Just inside, on a shelf against the wall, was a cloth sack of chopped grain. There was a wooden bowl sitting inside the sack on top of the grain, so Fred half-filled the bowl with grain and, being careful to close the small door and bar it, returned to the hen-house. Fred scattered the grain around next to the little ramp that led up to the cloth-covered hole. One by one the hens ventured out to peck up the grain.

Fred caught a flicker of movement amidst the trees in the nearby forest. It was a fox, prowling, apparently, in hopes of killing a nice fat hen for breakfast.

“Fox,” said Fred, “Come out.”

The fox came out of the forest a few metres and sat down, saucily twitching its tail.

“You are not the fox that helped me last night,” said Fred.

“That was my husband,” replied the vixen.

“If I make you a bargain,” said Fred, “will you and your mate honour it?”

“We have no choice,” replied the vixen, sarcastically. “You are wearing the damned magic.”

“I don’t wear this pelt all the time,” said Fred. “But a bargain is a bargain, don’t you think?”

“We are not merchants,” replied the vixen, shifting uncomfortably, “ to be bound by empty promises. But let me hear your terms.”

“I will keep you and your mate and children safe from hunters, “ said Fred, “ In return, you eat the rats from the silo instead of the chickens.”

“As you say,” pointed out the vixen, “You don’t wear the pelt ALL the time...”

“I am getting the hang of this thing,” replied Fred, thoughtfully. “I have an idea that should take care of that problem...”

“I agree to your terms,” said the vixen.

“Come with me, then,” said Fred, and the two of them, fox and Fred, went to the grain silo. On the way, Fred called out “Bull snake by the barn, come here”.

A very large, sluggish bull snake came wiggling rather stiffly through the drying dew.

“Do you know,” it hissed resentfully, “what time in the morning it is? I have not yet had my bask in the sun.”

The fox made a strange noise that sounded suspiciously like a stifled giggle.

“My apologies,” smiled Fred, “I will make it worth your inconvenience.”

There was wooden door on a complicated wooden hinge in the clay brick wall of the silo. Fred opened the door and dropped in the snake.

“Rats,” called Fred, “there is a snake in the silo.”

Hundreds of rats, big and small, tumbled out of the grain and out into the sunlit morning.. The bull snake swam to the surface of the grain with a very large rat.

“Fank-oo ferry gnuch,” hissed the snake past the still wiggling rodent passing into his gullet. The snake slid out of the silo door to the ground, slithered back to the barn and curled up on a sunny rock to digest his meal.

Meanwhile the fox was snapping at running rats, tossing them into the air and breaking their necks most efficiently until she had nearly a dozen of them. She swallowed six of them down whole and neatly arranged the others in her mouth to take back to her pups and mate.

A small rat popped to the surface of the grain.

“That wasn’t very nice,” squeaked the little rat accusingly.

Fred shrugged.

“If there are too many rats,” said Fred, “You will eat all the grain, the widow Polan won’t be able to stay on the farm, and then there won’t be ANY grain. It’s all a balance. I’ll be dropping the snake in the silo from time to time, just so you know.”

“You can’t wear the pelt ALL the time,” said the little rat. But nonetheless it jumped down to the ground and ran off into the forest. Fred remembered the large thorn in his pocket, and he used it to jam the door of the silo more securely shut.

Fred spent the morning cleaning out the barn with a carved wooden shovel and a deer-antler rake he found hanging on the wall. He spoke softly to the four cows he found in the barn, moving them aside gently to rake the manure out of their stalls, and made sure their manger was filled with fresh hay and grain and their water trough with fresh clean water.

Soon he realized that he was very hungry, and that a delicious smell of fresh bread was wafting from the farm-house.

“Fred,” came the voice of T’Reece. “Breakfast”

Over breakfast, which was cups of tea with delicious bread freshly-baked on the hearth and home-made preserves that had evidently, judging by the condensation on the chilled jar, been kept down the well, Fred commented:

“I see the cows don’t seem to need milking....”

“Not yet,” Polan smiled, “but, thanks to my industrious husband and the neighbour’s bull, all four are with calf. This time next year we will have more milk than we can drink, and I will be able to make cheese.”

“And the fields?”

“I’ll have to plow them myself, as best I can with an infant at breast,” sighed Polan wistfully. “T’Reese has many gifts, but he has yet to master the control of a team of oxen. He could sow the corn , though.”

“As it happens,” said Fred the Fool, marveling at his own boldness and foolhardiness, “I am without employment for the next few months. In fact, those to whom my employment might have mattered most likely think I am dead.”

“Yes?” replied Polan, rather flatly, watching Fred carefully.

“And, I am without lodging,” continued Fred, “and I am young and strong, and apparently smarter than I thought.”

“Yes?” repeated Polan in the same tone.

“I propose that you employ me as your farm-hand,” said Fred. “I will plow your fields, clean your barn, do such carpentry as doesn’t require too much skill, hunt such animals as will provide meat for the table, and help bring in the harvest. In return, I will eat at your table and sleep by your hearth until I can build a small room for myself off the barn.”

“I accept your terms,” began Polan.

“Mother, don’t!” cried out T’Reese. “He is a sorcerer! He has bewitched us!”

“No, sweetheart,” smiled Polan. “He is only a lupomancer, and not a very good one. And he is not WEARING the wolf-skin right now.”
She stood with the new-born baby on her left hip, while T’Reese stared at her, open-mouthed.

“And he is young and strong, and kind-hearted. And we need someone larger than you to lift the stooks of hay and shovel the manure. However,” Polan pierced Fred with a stern look, “If you had been paying attention while you were cleaning the barn, you would have seen that we already have a shed built on the far wall with a stone hearth in it. It was to be the cheese room, but I believe it will do for your living quarters.”

Polan smiled warmly at her son. “Just because I don’t see unicorns doesn’t mean I don’t believe in magic.”

“I will have a look at the ‘cheese-house’ this afternoon,” said Fred. “I do have a request, though. Could you make a hat and vest for me out of the wolf-skin? The peddler said it wouldn’t diminish the magic.”

“My people believe that sewing a garment introduces a different magic into it,” replied Polan rather carefully. “Are you sure you want that?”

“I could only benefit from an extra blessing,” said Fred.

Polan chuckled. She picked up the wolf-pelt and turned it this way and that, assessing how it might be cut and sewn.

“I think I can also save enough fur to make you a fine pair of boots, with the fur inside.” she said “And some quill-beads to decorate the outside?” Fred smiled and nodded.

“Wisdom,” she said absently, “Is like a secret money pocket sewn into your hat.”

“People keep telling me things like that,” said Fred, puzzled.

“Like what?” asked Polan, looking up and puzzled in her turn.
“Never mind,” said Fred, and he went out into the farm yard.

There was, in fact, a very cozy little shed built onto the far side of the barn. It had a small hearth, adequate to heat it during the cold months, and even a water trough where the cheese implements would have been washed, but which would do nicely for washing up a dusty farm hand. Fred made a couple of short trips into the forest to gather sphagnum moss to fill the cracks between the rough poles of his new home and in no time at all he had it swept clean. Swept? Oh my, the straws! He went back to the farm-house to retrieve the straws the mice had brought him, and sat down in the farm yard to make a new broom. As he finished the broom, Fred looked up from his work just in time to see Stone, Dancer and Wasp advancing on T’Reese from the far side of the house. They had not yet seen Fred.

Stone swung his wicked club menacingly as he approached.

“Ho, little man,” he growled ferociously. “Where is your father?”

“Dead,” replied T’Reese, defiantly. T’Reese had also not noticed Fred.

Stone winked lasciviously at Dancer.

“Aha,” he smirked. “There must be a young widow nearby, then.”

Dancer and Wasp chuckled appreciatively, but stopped dead in their tracks when they saw Fred.

“Freddy?” shouted Wasp. “Freddy-boy! Aren’t you dead?”

“That may be,” said Fred, stepping forward. “But dead or alive, I stand between you and your prey.”

T’Reese ran to stand beside Fred, as if they were two warriors of ancient myth. In reality, Fred’s knees were weak as water and his heart was pounding. But he had the confidence of the peddler’s magic, and the benefit of a few days of quiet thought.

“Prey?” replied Dancer in his silkiest voice. ‘Why, Freddy, we only want what any man would want.”

“You shall not have it here,” said Fred, calmly. “Leave now.”

“Leave?” growled Stone.”Leave without giving you the beating you earned by cheating me at the Drunken Oak?” He swung the stone-headed staff in a great arc.

“As to that,” replied Fred, meeting his burning gaze, “I have had a while to think about things. It was Dancer that passed me the cards, and I daresay it was Dancer who pocketed the money after you and I - er - left the party. And I’ll wager,” continued Fred, “That Wasp has in his purse the gold coin with your teeth marks in it that you wagered on the second round.”

“Freddy-boy has gotten some grit, after his fall over the cliff,” said Wasp, but Stone was glaring at Dancer with suspicion.

“It WAS you that passed the Fool that last hand...” growled Stone.

“I was only getting rid of the cards so you wouldn’t beat on ME,” protested Dancer, cowering ever so slightly. Wasp, mean-time was edging toward the road. Stone, without looking, fetched him a blow to the shoulder with his serpentine-headed staff that flung Wasp to his knees.

“Let’s see that purse of yours,” said Stone to Wasp in a strange soft voice. Wasp, who by this time was dangling by his neck from Stone’s massive fist, gurgled reassuringly and fumbled out the velvet bag. Stone dropped Wasp in a heap at his feet and emptied the jingling bag into his enormous palm. He held up a gold coin and gingerly put it between his teeth.

“This IS the coin that I wagered! It should be in Fred’s purse...” Stone turned to Fred with a peculiar expression. “My apologies for the fight at the tavern...I acted rashly.”

“You will leave now,” repeated Fred. “There is nothing for you here.”

Fred stood with feet planted apart and arms crossed. T’Reese took the same posture.

“These malefactors will trouble you no more,” replied Stone, grimly. “They and I are about to indulge in some ...exercise....” and with an ear-splitting bellow, and a soul-shivering blow of his staff on the ground, he set off in pursuit of the two thieves who were already sprinting for the road back to the centre of the wood..

“That was well said,” commented a voice from behind Fred, a voice like pottery shards on a slate roof. Fred turned to see the peddler emerging from the trees at the edge of the farm. “You have changed in the last two days, I think.”

The approach of the peddler was the last straw for T’Reese, who ran pell-mell up to the farm-house and took refuge in the kitchen.

“Confidence is easily mustered when no harm can come to me,” shrugged Fred, gazing after T’Reese.

“True,” chuckled the peddler, in his eerie way. “But you are not wearing the wolf-pelt.”

Fred slapped at his shoulders. It was true: the wolf-pelt was in the farm-house, being tailored to his specifications by Polan. Fred laughed a great shout of laughter that frightened a nearby chipmunk foraging for spilled grain. The chipmunk raced up a sapling about an arm’s length from Fred and out onto a branch over Fred’s head.

“Well,” said Fred ruefully, “I suppose it is true what they say about bullies, that anyone can stand up to them and most of the time they will back down. Still,” Fred continued, “the magic in that pelt has served me well, fed me, kept me safe from the bear.”

“Many folk would have used that magic for the wrong purposes,” replied the peddler. “and many would have used it to their own harm. You are not so much the Fool as you have thought all your life. Polan is correct: you are kind-hearted and in time you may acquire wisdom.”

“Well,” said Fred again, “knowing that the pelt keeps me safe from harm has given me time to think, and being able to speak with the animals has taught me much about wisdom.”

“What a strange thing to say,” gravelled the peddler. “The pelt only compels that you receive what you ask for and that you come to no harm. It doesn’t let you talk to the beasts.”

The cloaked figure whistled loudly to the mule and two set off along the hidden deer trail, vanishing almost immediately from sight among the thick boles of the giant trees.

“What do you suppose that means?” asked Frederick, gazing into the woods.

The chipmunk on the branch over his head cocked a beady eye at Fred.

“I haven’t the slightest idea,” replied the chipmunk.