Friday, February 5, 2016

Chapter Twp: Apples (Part Four)

Thornbriar had been working steadily in the library, removing books, dusting them, and sorting them into piles. As he pulled the last volume out of its nook and blew the dust from it, the great-grandfather clock in the corner chimed the half-hour. Thornbriar looked up.

“Eleven-thirty,” he murmured with satisfaction. “Time for a break.”

Thornbriar sat back in his squeaky willow chair and gazed happily upon his work. All the books were arranged in piles according to his own eccentric system, and ready to go back on the shelves. The elf picked up the cup of hot chocolate he had been sipping as he worked and took a long swig of its now tepid contents. He frowned.

What was bothering him was a small stack of six books. These belonged to Dr. Gilpin, and had been borrowed over the past few months. There was really no good place to put them.

“There’s only one thing to do,” said the elf decisively, downing the final dregs of chocolate and clanking the mug down on the table beside him. “I’ll just run them over to the Doctor and get back in time for lunch. I wonder where Bear is? Oh well.”


***

The old alchemist Dr. Gilpin, who had been at his counter idly passing time by thumbing through an almanac, was glad to see his elvish friend again. He gratefully accepted back the borrowed books, and soon they were happily gossiping about this and that. Talk soon turned to refreshments, and refreshments to a game of chess. As they played, they continued chatting.

“And how is Bear?” quizzed Gilpin, his finger tapping one of his battered ebony rooks as he considered his next move. He slid the tiny castle several squares forward. “What’s he up to?”

“Oh, the usual,” chuckled Thornbriar absentmindedly. He intently studied the board. “Lummoxing about. In fact, he’s out in search of apples from that tree of yours.”

“Well, you know you’re welcome to them,” said Gilpin. “If there are any this late in the season. Hmp! Do you think it’s wise for Bear to be running around in the daylight like that? What if he’s seen?”

“Oh, he’s pretty careful,” said the elf confidently. He reached out and re-positioned his knight. “He has his secret ways and little crafts to avoid detection. Probably the best thing going for us is that no one expects to see a bear.”

“How do you mean?” asked the doctor.

Thornbriar grinned. “Everybody knows there are no bears around here, so no one goes looking for one. What you don’t look for, you don’t often find.”

“What if someone actually sees him?”

“No bears in these parts,” said the elf solemnly. “Must have been something else.”

Dr. Gilpin shook his head and smiled, turning again to the game.

“Even so…” he began, but was interrupted by a sudden clatter of footsteps on the porch outside.

In a twinkling, the elf was off his stool and behind the counter. By the time Giles (the youngest Granger boy) burst in the door, ringing the shop bell wildly and panting out of breath, all that he could see was old Dr. Gilpin, looking up from a half-finished game.

“Dad’s got a bear trapped in the barn,” the gangly boy blurted out, waving his hands in excitement. “We’re raising up the country round! Best come, sir! There might be bloodshed!”

“Yes, of course,” said Dr. Gilpin soothingly, eyeing the boy’s ruffled red hair and popping blue eyes. “I’ll go over there with my bag directly.”

“Yes, sir! Thank you, sir! I’ve got to go now and get the Constable. A bear, sir! Dad says it’s as big as a house!” There’ll be murder for sure! Goodbye!”

He hurtled out of the shop with another wild flurry of the bell and went pounding down the road.

“Well, well, well,” said Dr. Gilpin. “It seems Bear hasn’t been near as careful enough this time.”

“That idiot!” blustered Thornbriar, jumping out from behind the counter and angrily stamping up and down the floor. “This is great. This is just wonderful. What in the world was he doing poking around that farm in broad daylight?”

“It does seem to have been a mistake,” tutted the old alchemist. He hauled a battered leather bag out of the corner, unlocked a small glass cabinet, and began taking out a number of multi-colored bottles, loading them into the bag.

“Even if he can escape, he’s blown his cover around these parts. No one will ever rest knowing there’s a bear in the woods. He’ll be hunted down…Maybe even tracked to the house! He’ll have to leave; move far away! Maybe I’ll have to as well! Oh, this is so great!”

“Now, now,” cautioned Gilpin. “It hasn’t come to that yet. Our first priority is to see if we can save Bear. I’ll tell you what.” He considered a moment, chin in hand, then pointed to the elf. “I’ll go over there now to see what’s up. You go by more secret ways, and approach the barn from the rear. Maybe between us we can find a way to rescue him. All right?”

“Yes, that sounds like the thing to do,” agreed the distracted elf. After first carefully checking to see if anyone else was around, he walked with the doctor out to the road. The two shook hands as they parted.

“Thank you, Doctor,” said Thornbriar. “If this all turns out well, I’m going to have a thing or two to say to that bear.”

“Good luck, said Gilpin, and the elf turned and faded into the wintry underbrush that lined the road. The old man hefted his medical bag and started down the dusty lane.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Chapter Two: Apples Part Three)

Obadiah Granger sat just inside his kitchen door, rocking quietly in his rocking chair and shelling peas. He was a man of fifty, but looked older. His black eyes darted craftily under gray, craggy brows, and his drooping lower lip was perpetually puckered with distaste.

As his black-nailed fingers automatically popped peas from their yellowing pods, his eyes roved critically over the barnyard. He was thinking of what needed to be done (like painting the fence or pulling weeds) and which of his many sons to set on the job.

“Miles has been acting awfully uppity,” he grumbled to himself. “He can clean out the henhouse this week, then I can sell it as fertilizer come spring. Stiles better get the rest of the hay in today, the lazy dog! Might be going to rain. He can handle it, he’s big enough. Don’t need help. Giles could help him I guess, but that boy did bring them apples home…What the devil is that!”

The farmer stopped rocking and sat still, hardly allowing himself to breathe. A strange, furry head was poking around a corner of the barnyard fence. Its huge black nose snuffled the air. One big paw came forward slowly, followed by another. Then the shaggy bulk of a bear oozed silently forward into the barnyard.

Ain’t it ever going to stop? The astonished Granger wondered. At last the whole length of Bear was in full view; the big animal pacing about and cautiously exploring the barnyard.

I must be upwind of it, Granger thought. Maybe it’ll go away. Lord, what if it sees me? Got to hold still, unless it comes this way. Then I’d better get inside the house and slam the door. What the blazes is a bear doing in these parts anyway?

The big animal was nosing around the barn now. The door was slightly ajar with the latch swinging free. The old farmer leaned carefully forward as he watched the bear poke its head inside, then shoulder the crack in the door wider, slipping inside. The barn door creaked almost shut again.

Whatever happened afterward, it must be admitted that now old Granger did a brave thing. As quietly as he could, he rose up on shaking legs and sprinted over to the barn door. His fingers scrabbled at the latch and closed it with a snap, trapping Bear inside.

The farmer leaned against the door, puffing and blowing, his heart quaking in his chest.

Almost immediately, the door bulged outwards as the angry bear hurled himself against it from the inside. Granger lurched back, but the stout wood held, much to his relief.

“Miles! Bob! Hal!” the old man bawled. “Where are you boys? Come out to the barn quick! Giles! Miles!”

Inside the barn, Bear threw himself uselessly against the door again. Trapped! He thought, falling back panting into the dusty dimness of the straw-filled hold. The barnyard had seemed deserted! And now that dreadful farmer was gathering help to destroy him!

Bear sat back thoughtfully on his haunches and began to study his situation. If he didn’t find a way out, he would soon be in serious trouble.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Chapter Two: Apples (Part Two)

The happy bear ambled along outside, humming to himself and stopping now and then to scratch or sniff anything that looked like it might be edible.

It was a good day for a walk, a late autumn day with a powdery blue sky, cool and dry with a soft breeze blowing. The wild grass had long ago seeded and burst, and now there were only the rattling stalks by the roadside. The mown fields lay bare and symmetrical, with a late bird here and there gleaning the furrows.

It was unlikely that anyone would be about, but Bear automatically took a few precautions just in case, choosing a smaller, little-used path between fields and sticking to fences and hedges; keeping his ears and nose open.

Bear wasn’t really thinking too much about apples. In fact, it didn’t make too much difference to him whether there were any left or not. It was just fine to be out walking, and not holed away helping Thornbriar clean musty shelves and shifting heavy books. If there were apples at the end of the road, so much the better. Therefore, when he finally spotted Dr. Gilpin’s tree in a corner where three fields met, he was only mildly disappointed. He could see at a glance that someone had been there before him, harvesting energetically.

“Thieving choughs!” he cursed, and almost turned back down the road. He paused. “Perhaps I’ll check closer,” he grumbled. “There might be some apples left. Maybe I can scrounge enough for a little pie.”

He turned back to the tree and lumbered over to investigate.

The apple tree was old and wild, with gnarled black wood and bleached yellow leaves still clinging stubbornly to the thinning limbs. Squashy brown windfalls lay littered around its roots like shrunken heads, splattering under Bear’s heavy paws as he raised himself up on hind legs to peer into the branches.

He grunted with annoyance. There was not an apple to be seen. Someone had thoroughly picked the lot.

I guess Dr. Gilpin wanted those apples himself, after all, thought Bear. Well, perhaps I’ll go and see him, and borrow a few.

He edged up closer to the tree so he could take one last look and make sure there were no remaining apples, when he noticed something that made him frown.

At first he couldn’t make out what it was that had struck him as wrong, but then it came to him. The smell! The scent of whomever had taken the apples was not the familiar smell of Dr. Gilpin, but of someone else.

Bear backed down and cast about the tree, sniffing. It was the scent of someone strange, he decided, but vaguely familiar as well. He widened his search until he came upon the trail leading away from the apple tree, squinting and lining up the direction.

The track led not towards the Doctor’s house, but straight over the fields towards the Granger’s farm.

“Why that lousy little thief!” growled Bear. He’d heard about old Obadiah Granger many a time from Dr. Gilpin. It seemed that all too often the farmer and his half-dozen or so odious sons had been poor neighbors: disputing boundaries, trespassing, and poaching game on the Doctor’s land.

Gossip had it that even Mrs. Granger was a pretty sharp dealer at the market, and was suspected of watering milk and mixing grit or sawdust with her meal to increase the weight.

The more Bear thought about the larcenous Grangers getting his apples, the more his fur bristled. He huffed and stamped his paws, then suddenly set off down the trail towards their farm.
He had made up his mind. The Granger’s weren’t getting those apples! At least, not one pie’s worth!

Monday, February 1, 2016

Chapter Two: Apples (Part One)

Bear woke up, his nose already snuffling to the delicious smell that perfumed the air. He stirred, smiling but still half asleep, then rolled his bulk like an avalanche over the side of the rumpled bed, dragging blankets and pillows with him down to the freezing floor.

This woke him up completely, and springing to his paws he shuffled out of the bedroom, following the delightful aroma to the warm, lighted kitchen, where much clattering and clanging announced that Thornbriar was busy with breakfast.

Bear entered the doorway to a delicious waft of steam. Thornbriar was at the grill, energetically shaking a long frying pan to keep the golden brown pancake inside it from sticking. With a deft twist of the wrist, the elf flipped the pancake out of the pan onto an already tall stack, adding a pat of creamy butter before pouring another portion of batter into the pan. As he waited for it to brown, he turned and noticed Bear, who had plunked himself down on one of the benches by the table.

"Good morning,” said Thornbriar cheerfully. "Just one more of these and we'll be ready to eat."

“Morning,” said Bear, snitching a sausage off a platter that sat piled and steaming with them on the table. “Something smells awfully good.”

“Well thanks,” said the elf. He turned the pancake over. “Sausage and flapjacks are a pair of my favorites.”

“”Oh, it’s not that,” said Bear, sniffing. “I mean, those are good, yes. But there’s something else; something I can’t quite put my paw on, as it were.”

“I bet I know what it is,” said Thornbriar, adding the last pancake to the stack and bringing the full platter over to the table. “When I built the fire this morning I put a few sticks of apple wood in the kindling.”

“Apples! That’s what it is!” Bear speared a large pile of floppy, buttery pancakes and transferred them to his plate. These were soon joined by a pair of smoked sausages and drowned heavily in thick clover honey. Thornbriar helped himself as well, choosing maple syrup rather than honey, and for a few moments only the sounds of serious eating were to be heard in the kitchen.

When they were done the elf began to clear the table, putting the dishes in the sink, while the bear sat by the fire and stretched out his paws to warm them, every now and then taking deep whiffs of the aromatic wood smoke.

“You know what would taste really good?” Bear said. “Another one of your apple pies.”

Thornbriar snorted in amusement. “How can you already be thinking of more food, right after that huge meal? Anyway, it’s out of the question. We’re out of apples.”

“What? Already? Winter’s hardly even started.”

“You can’t just gnaw on them all the time and expect them to last forever, you know,” said the elf, drying his hands on a tea-towel. “That’s that. Now, What are we going to do today?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Bear got up, stretching, then shaking the loose folds of his skin until his fur lay down smoothly. “What I’d really like to do is scavenge up some apples.”

“I don’t suppose there are many left this time of year, unless…Wait a minute!” said Thornbriar, snapping his fingers. “There’s the old apple tree on the edge of Dr. Gilpin’s property, just before the fields. I remember him saying that it had a fair crop this year, and that if we ever wanted any, to take some.”

“Do you think there are any left?”

Thornbriar considered a moment. “It’s possible, I suppose, but unlikely. I don’t think I’d want to tramp all the way over just on the off chance. I’ve pretty much determined to work on the library today, dusting and arranging.”

“My, you do lead an adventurous life,” snorted Bear. He heaved himself up to his full height, standing on his hind legs, and struck a heroic pose, one paw on his chest and the other flung up toward the heavens. “You may stay with your dusty books, my friend, but I shall sally forth in search of apples, come what may. Seek not to himder me!” He held up a forestalling paw towards the elf, who hadn’t moved a bit, but watched his friends antics with an amused face. “For I must—be gone!”

With a dramatic flurry, he was out the door, leaving Thornbriar to wryly shake his head before turning to the library and his morning’s task.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Friday, January 29, 2016

Chapter One: Goblins (Complete)


Chapter One: Goblins

Oak trees rattled their bare branches in the sharp, November wind outside Thornbriar the Elf's underground home. A hail of scattered leaves tapped and skittered against the door and windows. Inside the house the fire was going merrily and the kettle was whistling. Thornbriar looked into the pantry and frowned.
"Bear," he said, his nose twitching with annoyance, "Do you know what happened to the apple pie I baked last night? I made it especially for today's tea."
There was a guilty silence from the overstuffed chair where the bear was resting his shaggy bulk in front of the fire. He pretended (not too convincingly) to be absorbed in a book on the magic of fireflies, pressing his big, snuffly nose almost to the page.
Thornbriar shut the pantry door with a snap that made the bear drop his book and look up startled at his friend. At three feet tall the elf was less than half the height of Bear standing on his hind legs, but the enormous bruin began to shuffle his paws and look nervously away as Thornbriar turned and advanced on him.
The elf’s long forefinger pointed accusingly right between Bear’s black, nearsighted eyes.
“Well?” the elf demanded.
“Er…ah…well, to tell the truth, old fellow,” Bear stammered, closing his book. “The truth of the matter is…uh…I ate it, last night, after you went to bed. It smelled so good I had to have a slice.” His smile was appeasing.
“A slice,” said Thornbriar.
“Well, one thing led to another, that is to say, one slice led to another, and by the time I realized what was happening, there was only a tiny bit left. It seemed embarrassing to leave just that for you, almost insulting.” He gulped. “So I ate it too.”
“This won’t do, Bear,” the elf said. “If you go on like this we’ll be out of food before winter’s half gone.”
“I can’t help it,” Bear said. “It’s the nature of bears to eat a lot at this time of year to get ready for the long winter’s sleep.”
Thornbriar snorted. “Don’t give me that rubbish.”
He went over to the coat rack in the corner by the door. “You never spend that much time sleeping anymore. You don’t have to, with me feeding and housing you. Out raiding smokehouses every other night is more like it. Well, I’ve had just about enough of it.”
He whirled his dark blue coat off of the rack and onto his back, then jammed a tall, peaked blue hat on his head.
“Where are you going?” asked Bear anxiously.
“Out.”
“But what about the tea?”
“You can finish it off yourself,” said the elf, angrily winding a muffler around his neck. He opened the door and paused dramatically to face the confounded bruin.
“As for me, I am going to get some fresh air, as far away from greedy bears as I can get. Good day to you!”
With a flourish he slammed the door and was gone, leaving Bear to contemplate the half-set table with a long face.
***
The cold north wind cut through Thornbriar’s coat, but he paid it little heed. He stumped along the dirt road, kicking the piles of leaves that drifted into his path. Now and then he would pick up a stray branch, toy with it, then snap and throw it aside in anger. Around him the day was more impressive than beautiful, with dark masses of clouds being driven along and the oak trees moaning and singing in the wind.
It was nothing to the elf, who merely hugged his thin arms closer and made his way deeper into the woods, muttering and grumbling to himself about stupid bears and paying no attention to where he was going.
With a start of surprise he found himself in a clearing by the roadside, with the rambling stone house of Dr. Gilpin suddenly before him. It occurred to Thornbriar that this was exactly where he had been headed, in order to explain to someone who would understand the iniquity of bears and the folly of sharing a house with one. He went up to the door and rang the bell.
Dr. Gilpin was a human, and it is unusual for any of the Field Folk to have anything to do with humans, but Thornbriar was a little eccentric by elvish standards. Most magical creatures consider humans dull and tedious when not downright dangerous, but Thornbriar always found Dr. Gilpin full of fascinating lore about distant lands and stories about the stars, and there was little the tall old man didn’t know about the properties of herbs and roots. The elf himself could only work Small Magics, but the doctor was so impressed when Thornbriar did that it was rather flattering. Now Dr. Gilpin seemed the perfect ally to hear his troubles.
The elf rang the bell again, glancing absently at the multi-colored bottles in the shop window as the last echoes of the bell faded inside the building.
“Come in,” called a distant, hollow-sounding voice, and Thornbriar pushed open the heavy door on creaking hinges. The front shop was empty and shadowy, but from the door in the back came a faint, pulsing light. “Come along, come along,” said the voice, louder now. “I’m back in the workroom. And just bring along that bottle on the counter, will you? This is tricky stuff.”
The elf picked up the bottle, a tall cut-glass decanter, and began feeling his way down the dimly lit hall. He came to a doorway rimmed with light and opened it to a blast of heat and glare. Squinting, he could make out the busy figure of Dr. Gilpin, dressed as usual in his long black robe, with the sleeves tucked up to his shoulders. He was puffing away with a bellows into a cast iron furnace.
Thornbriar picked his way gingerly over to the old man who was gazing intently into the open stove, his long white eyebrows almost frizzled in the heat and his blunt craggy features basted in sweat.
“I believe the crisis has passed,” the doctor pronounced after a few moments. “All it needs to do now is burn down and cool.” He shook out his sleeves and wiped his brow, turning towards the elf. “Oh, hello, Thornbriar. I’m doing a bit of alchemy, you see. Just the thing on a cold day like today. Let’s take that bottle over to the worktable.”
They sat down on a rough bench next to the table that clattered and clinked with glass alembics, retorts, and vials. Dr. Gilpin started searching through them. Thornbriar, unable to contain himself, began his tirade.
“Good afternoon, Doctor. You’ll never guess what that fool Bear’s done now. After all my hard work and planning, what does he do but…”
“Goes on the carpet,” guessed the old man. He selected a relatively clean pair of retorts, and uncorked the cut-glass bottle. “My sister had a mastiff that was exactly the same way. You can never make large animals too particular in their habits.” He poured out a generous portion from the bottle into each retort and pushed one over to the flabbergasted elf. “Here’s to your health,” he winked, raising his glass and downing it with relish.
“No, no, it’s nothing like that.” Thornbriar waved the suggestion away as the aged alchemist sighed in contentment. “He devoured an entire pie that I had made particularly for today. Didn’t even leave me a slice. That’s the thanks I get for taking him in out of the wild.” The preoccupied elf took a sip from his retort, then frowned and held it up to the light to look at its color. The liquid was a very light brown. “What is this stuff?”
“Barley water,” said Dr. Gilpin, taking another swig. My niece brews it herself. Very healthful, they say. Keeps the workings regular and the wind away.” He held out the bottle. “Top it off for you?”
“No thanks, this is fine,” said the elf, setting the retort down carefully. “Anyway, I’ve a mind to boot him out. Besides all the food he gobbles, he snores, Dr. Gilpin! Snores fit to crack ice. And he leaves hair everywhere! I have to sweep at least twice a day. A bear! What was I thinking?”
“What you need is sanicle.”
“What?”
“Sanicle and lungwort. They clear congestion and stop snoring. Of course I can’t guarantee the complete effect on ursine anatomy, but…”
“No, that’s not the point,” said Thornbriar. “Bear has got to…”
There was a muffled explosion from the inside of the furnace that made both jump. “Good Heavens!” Gilpin cried. “There must be an adverse reaction in the fifth transmogrific cycle!” He hastily snatched up a pair of pliers and some padded gloves. “I’m sorry, Thornbriar, but I must see to this!” The oven was pinging and shaking as if it were full of popcorn. The doctor approached it and cautiously opened the door.
There was a lick of flame, and Thornbriar saw, in the middle of the fire, what appeared to be a face of molten brass changing from frowning to smiling to frowning again in quick succession. The Doctor began shouting some sort of Latin chant and throwing herbs on the fire. The elf watched a moment, then when it became apparent the Doctor would be busy some time, he shrugged impatiently and made his way out.
Once outside Thornbriar began to trudge his way deeper into the woods, his visit to the Doctor already forgotten in his continued anger at the bear. He walked along muttering, making telling points to passing trees or asking rhetorical questions of the sky. All around the woods deepened and the light grew dimmer and dimmer as the evening drew on. He went over ditches and through vast undergrowth, through oceans of ferns touched red by autumn under the black pillars of trees, heedless of everything about him.
Finally, tired out, he cast himself down on a small hillock warmed by the last rays of the setting sun. He meant to rest only for a moment, but he must have been more worn out than he thought, for as he sat in the warmth of the sun and listened to the sighing of the wind in the grass, he soon fell asleep.
Thornbriar woke to complete darkness. Overhead no moon nor any star twinkled in the darkly shrouded sky. All about him was the tall blackness of the whispering trees in a cold wind. The elf scrambled to his feet and gazed wide-eyed all around. In the shifting shadows nothing looked familiar, and there was not the faintest light to let him hope to guess a way.
“Good Heavens!” he thought. “Well, what do I do? Nothing to do but guess a direction, I suppose. Well, the woods don’t go on forever, and I must come out somewhere. I wish it weren’t so cold, or that I’d eaten something before I left.”
He stood hugging himself and stamping in the chill air, then chose a direction where there seemed to be a hint of a path and started following it. In a moment, the dark woods had swallowed him up.
Perhaps if he had a little more wood lore he would have done better, but he was after all Field Folk and not one of the People of the Woods, and, being only a few hundreds of years old, was not very experienced. All about him the trees grew thicker and denser and the underbrush more impassable. He began to feel like a fly blundering blindly in a web. His feet tangled in unseen roots, and the rattle of a year’s worth of leaves blown on the wind was like the hum of an angry hive around his ears.
Then Thornbriar panicked. He never remembered what triggered it, but he suddenly shrieked and started to run, arms stretched out in front of him. He jolted into trees that ricocheted him off into new directions. He scrabbled his way frantically forward, branches whipping his body. Blind fear drove the elf forward until he felt that his heart would split, but he didn’t stop until his foot came down on nothing but air and, with a cry, he tumbled down into an old, dry creek bed, stones and dirt slithering along with him. There was an abrupt burst of light and noise.
“What’s this?” said a gruff voice, and Thornbriar felt a rough hand grip him by the shoulder and lift him painfully to his feet.
The elf shook his head and blinked his eyes against the flickering firelight. His muzzy sight focused and he found himself looking into the pinched and stony face of a goblin.
“Who are you?” the gangrel creature growled, giving the elf a shake. “Answer up quick, or me and my lads will put paid to you without a fare-thee-well and not think twice.” There was a chorus of snarls all around.
Thornbriar looked about fearfully. There were seven goblins in all, standing around in what was plainly a make-shift camp. Although none but the leader was as tall as the elf, they were broad at the shoulder and brawny. All were dressed in tattered clothes and battered mail and armed with bows and spears. The leader carried a sword, rusty and notched, which he now drew and held up to the elf’s neck.
“Talk!” ne hissed. “What are you doing here?”
“I am Thornbriar of the Field Folk,” the elf twittered, the rusty sword tickling his throat. “My home is far from here. I went wandering and got lost. I didn’t mean to trespass on any goblins! Let me go and I’ll leave you alone, and never come back here again. I swear!”
“Don’t you do it, Cap’n Fleshbag,” growled a goblin with an eye-patch. “I say croak him now and hide the corpse. Lot safer for us in the long run, I dare say.”
“Dehead ‘im! Dehead ‘im!” shouted another standing next to the fire. “I hates all elves!”
“Who don’t?” said Fleshbag. He lowered his sword. “But I got a better idea. Gimpy, fetch out the leg-irons. We don’t want our guest leaving too quick.”
While a short goblin with a twisted foot hurried to obey his orders, Captain Fleshbag looked Thornbriar up and down. “Here, that’s a nice hat,” the goblin said. “I’ll take that.”
He reached out and took the tall blue hat off the elf’s head, obviously savoring the elf’s anger and helplessness.
The goblin placed it on his own round noggin, tilting it at a jaunty angle.
“Now then,” Fleshbag said, as Gimpy came forward and snapped the leg-irons around Thornbriar’s thin ankles. “You are own prisoner of war, and my personal slave, until you’re ransomed or the end of your miserable life, I don’t care which. You’ll cook and clean and carry for us all, though, and your first job is to get supper ready. Pigbottom, show him where the food and pots are.”
A squat, fat goblin came forward to lead Thornbriar away while the Captain leaned back into a comfy drift of leaves between the huge twisted tree roots that stuck out of the creek bank.
“I’m taking a little nap,” Fleshbag announced, “and I expect to eat in an hour. It better be good, elf. Lads, you can keep the whip handy so he don’t get lazy.” He pulled Thornbriar’s hat over his eyes and stretched out in exaggerated comfort.
The goblins ganged up around Thornbriar as he was led away, gabbling and poking at him and turning out his pockets to see if he had anything they could steal. Pigbottom pulled him along and threw him down roughly next to a grimy black cauldron perched on top of a clumsily piled stone fire-pit.
Thornbriar looked around for a way to escape, but the walls of the dry creek were steep and towered on either side. The goblins had stacked vast tangles of brushwood at either end to wall in their camp, and in the middle the campfire burned, casting light into every corner. Even if he could have gotten away, he found the leg-irons made it impossible to takes steps of more than a foot. He would never be able to outrun the gang of goblins.
Now began a horrible time. The goblin Gimpy brought him some bats to skin, and Pigbottom showed him the grimy sacks full of skunk cabbage and toadstools to chop up and put in the murky water in the cauldron. There were other vile ingredients to poor elf had to prepare and put in the pot. Many of these would kill any human in seven seconds, but goblins find them delicious.
Especially maddening was the way the goblins gathered around to prod and criticize the way he was doing things. For while all goblins are lazy and dirty and never do any work if they can help it, they love to find fault with others and nag incessantly.
By the time Thornbriar had the cauldron full and simmering on the fire, he was pouring sweat even in the chill night air and felt sore with the pinches and pushes from his captors. The thick goop had only started to bubble a little when Captain Fleshbag awoke with a snort and jumped to his feet.
“I’m ready to eat,” he announced. “Let’s see how you did, elf.”
He strode over to the pot and grabbed the ladle. The goblin leader stirred the steaming mess a few times and then scooped out a heaping load and sniffed it.
“Smelly,” he grunted approvingly. He brought the ladle to his lips and began slurping it loudly.
Suddenly he retched and spewed a mouthful of stew out back into the ladle. He turned to the sickened Tthornbriar and roared, tossing the goop back into the pot.
“This stuff is terrible! I guess I’ll have to teach you a lesson, pointy-ears.”
Fleshbag began loosening a coiled leather whip from his belt. “You’ll not serve me such muck again.”
“You didn’t give me enough time,” pleaded Thornbriar. “If you’ll just be patient while it cooks…”
“My patience has run out, elf,” sneered the goblin. “You had plenty of time. But you’re a sluggard. Well, a few licks of the lash will make you go fast enough.”
He flicked the whip around in wicked little circles, then gave it a preliminary crack. “This will cure your laziness!” He raised the whip back to strike and Thornbriar cringed.
The blow never fell.
With a roar that shook the trees and shattered the night air Bear came leaping down the ravine into the middle of the goblin camp. His landing seemed to shake the earth. The whip fell from Fleshbag’s suddenly limp fingers and his jaw dropped in his bloodless face. The bear sent goblins crashing left and right with mighty swipes of his paw as he bore down straight toward the goblin leader and Thornbriar.
Fleshbag drew out his sword with a shaking hand, but before he could use it, Bear knocked it upward with a blow of his paw. It went spinning through the air and landed with a “thunk” in the trunk of a tree. The goblin looked from where the blade hung quivering back into the red eyes and three-inch fangs snarling a foot from his face.
Flehbag’s mouth worked as if he were trying to say something, anything, that could save his hide. Bear thrust his snout forward and roared, a great full-throated bellow that sprayed the goblin and revealed even more teeth and a bright red gullet. Fleshbag’s eyes rolled up in his head, and with a whimper he buckled to the ground. As the goblin fainted, Bear reached forward and plucked the elf’s pointed blue hat from Fleshbag’s head before he hit the earth.
Bear handed Thornbriar his hat. “Come on,” he said. He looked around at the band of the groaning goblins. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Just a moment.”
The elf adjusted his hat, then turned to the greasy cauldron. Using the ladle he tipped its rim until the stomach-turning slop inside poured out, spilling everywhere and dousing the fire. He gave a satisfied nod. “Now let’s go.”
The bear hunkered down on all fours and the elf climbed on his back, clinging on top and holding onto the great beast’s fur. Bear squatted even lower, and then with a leap he cleared the creek wall and lumbered off, crashing into the night. Soon they had left the last dying flickers of the goblin’s fire far, far behind them.
Bear trotted along at a great pace through the frosty woods, while overhead the stars glittered like ice through the ragged clouds. At last, when he judged that they had gone a safe distance, he paused to rest under a large fir tree. The elf slid down from his back.
“Blast,” said Thornbriar. “I’ve forgotten the key for these chains.”
“Let me see, said Bear. The elf hobbled over and the bear leaned close to examine the lock. Then, extending one long claw, he inserted it into the keyhole. A few clinks and clanks and the manacles sprang open with a snap. Thornbriar picked up the chain and threw it off into the bushes.
“Bear,” he said, turning to his friend. “How in the world did you find me? I thought I’d got myself lost good and proper. In fact, I thought for a while that I’d never see home again.”
“Well, my nose still works,” said Bear shyly. “I got worried when you didn’t get back for supper, so I went to look for you…and, well…to apologize. I tracked you to Dr. Gilpin’s house, and then into the woods. About ten yards away from that ravine I sniffed and said to myself ‘Goblins!’ And when I poked my nose down to check it out, there you were.”
“And just in time, too,” said Thornbriar. “You saved me from a life of ignominious servitude, old fellow.”
“Well, you wouldn’t have been in that mess if it weren’t for me,” said the bear unhappily. “I hope you’ll forgive me.”
“There’s nothing to forgive, my friend,” said Thornbriar warmly. “Let’s get back home.”
The two started through the woods. Overhead, the last few tatters of clouds were gone, and the stars shone bright and clear. All around was silence, except for the slight crunch of leaves under their feet. A faint light began outlining the trunks of the bare oak trees, and by the time they left the woods the morning sun was brilliant red over the far mountains.
As they drew near their home, the bear turned toward the elf and said, “You must be tired and starving. When we get home you rest, and I’ll make you a big breakfast, of anything you want. How does that sound?”
“Truly excellent,” said Thornbriar. “I would like about a dozen eggs, and toast, and tea! And you know what would be especially nice? A couple of thick slices of that ham hanging in the larder.”
Bear stopped in his tracks and hung his head. “Oh,” he said.
“Why, Bear, what’s the matter?”
“Thornbriar, I ate the ham while I was waiting for you to get home yesterday! Oh dear, oh dear, I am sorry!”
“Bear!” yelled Thornbriar.
But he was laughing.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Chapter One: Goblins (Part Six)

The blow never fell.

With a roar that shook the trees and shattered the night air Bear came leaping down the ravine into the middle of the goblin camp. His landing seemed to shake the earth. The whip fell from Fleshbag’s suddenly limp fingers and his jaw dropped in his bloodless face. The bear sent goblins crashing left and right with mighty swipes of his paw as he bore down straight toward the goblin leader and Thornbriar.

Fleshbag drew out his sword with a shaking hand, but before he could use it, Bear knocked it upward with a blow of his paw. It went spinning through the air and landed with a “thunk” in the trunk of a tree. The goblin looked from where the blade hung quivering back into the red eyes and three-inch fangs snarling a foot from his face.

Flehbag’s mouth worked as if he were trying to say something, anything, that could save his hide. Bear thrust his snout forward and roared, a great full-throated bellow that sprayed the goblin and revealed even more teeth and a bright red gullet. Fleshbag’s eyes rolled up in his head, and with a whimper he buckled to the ground. As the goblin fainted, Bear reached forward and plucked the elf’s pointed blue hat from Fleshbag’s head before he hit the earth.

Bear handed Thornbriar his hat. “Come on,” he said. He looked around at the band of the groaning goblins. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Just a moment.”

The elf adjusted his hat, then turned to the greasy cauldron. Using the ladle he tipped its rim until the stomach-turning slop inside poured out, spilling everywhere and dousing the fire.

He gave a satisfied nod. “Now let’s go.”

The bear hunkered down on all fours and the elf climbed on his back, clinging on top and holding onto the great beast’s fur. Bear squatted even lower, and then with a leap he cleared the creek wall and lumbered off, crashing into the night. Soon they had left the last dying flickers of the goblin’s fire far, far behind them.

Bear trotted along at a great pace through the frosty woods, while overhead the stars glittered like ice through the ragged clouds. At last, when he judged that they had gone a safe distance, he paused to rest under a large fir tree. The elf slid down from his back.

“Blast,” said Thornbriar. “I’ve forgotten the key for these chains.”

“Let me see, said Bear. The elf hobbled over and the bear leaned close to examine the lock. Then, extending one long claw, he inserted it into the keyhole. A few clinks and clanks and the manacles sprang open with a snap. Thornbriar picked up the chain and threw it off into the bushes.

“Bear,” he said, turning to his friend. “How in the world did you find me? I thought I’d got myself lost good and proper. In fact, I thought for a while that I’d never see home again.”

“Well, my nose still works,” said Bear shyly. “I got worried when you didn’t get back for supper, so I went to look for you…and, well…to apologize. I tracked you to Dr. Gilpin’s house, and then into the woods. About ten yards away from that ravine I sniffed and said to myself ‘Goblins!’ And when I poked my nose down to check it out, there you were.”

“And just in time, too,” said Thornbriar. “You saved me from a life of ignominious servitude, old fellow.”

“Well, you wouldn’t have been in that mess if it weren’t for me,” said the bear unhappily. “I hope you’ll forgive me.”

“There’s nothing to forgive, my friend,” said Thornbriar warmly. “Let’s get back home.”

The two started through the woods. Overhead, the last few tatters of clouds were gone, and the stars shone bright and clear. All around was silence, except for the slight crunch of leaves under their feet. A faint light began outlining the trunks of the bare oak trees, and by the time they left the woods the morning sun was brilliant red over the far mountains.

As they drew near their home, the bear turned toward the elf and said, “You must be tired and starving. When we get home you rest, and I’ll make you a big breakfast, of anything you want. How does that sound?”

“Truly excellent,” said Thornbriar. “I would like about a dozen eggs, and toast, and tea! And you know what would be especially nice? A couple of thick slices of that ham hanging in the larder.”

Bear stopped in his tracks and hung his head. “Oh,” he said.

“Why, Bear, what’s the matter?”

“Thornbriar, I ate the ham while I was waiting for you to get home yesterday! Oh dear, oh dear, I am sorry!”

“Bear!” yelled Thornbriar.

But he was laughing.