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.

1 comment:

  1. This was a great little story. It had an interesting plot, parts that made me giggle, and a character that, while wholly flat, was intriguing and quite likeable. I also love, love, loved the first paragraph!

    I want more. :/