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Goblin War

 

Goblin War

The Chronicles of Dorro (Book 5)

 

by Pete Prown

[] Dramatis Personae

At the Library

 

Dorro Fox Winderiver: Bookmaster of Thimble Down (door-oh, winn-da-river)

Wyll Underfoot: Dorro’s nephew (will)

Cheeryup Tunbridge: Wyll’s best friend

Mr. Bedminster Shoe: Village scribe & teacher

 

In the Gaol & Courts

 

Amos Pinchbottle: A prisoner

Darwinna Thrashrack: A solicitor for the defense

Hamment Shugfoot: Solicitor for the prosecution

Tiberius Grumbeloaf: A truth-finder

Sheriff Forgo: The law in Thimble Down

Gadget Pinkle: Forgo’s deputy

The Mayor: Leader and magistrate of Thimble Down

 

In the Village of Thimble Down

 

Minty Pinter: A traveling tinker

Amos Pinchbottle: A local troublemaker

Dowdy Cray: A wagon builder and repairman

Bog: The blacksmith

Mr. Timmo: A metalsmith

Osgood Thrip: Mr. Dorro’s longtime nemesis

Dalbo Dall: The village wanderer

 

In the Grey Mountains

 

Saoirse: A lady of great wisdom (sir-sha)

Truckulus: Her son

Broog: An adversary

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used factiously. Any resemblance to action persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2017 Pete Prown

 

Cover background illustration copyright © Unholyvault | Dreamstime.com

 

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the author.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

Dramatis Personae

Preface

Red Feathers

The Corpus

Thrip Triumphant

Death & Whiskey

Amos Pinchbottle

The Solicitors

The Cell Next Door

Burial

The Trouble with Cousins

On the Case

Darwinna

Heartwood

The Trial

Decree of the Truth Finder

Goodbyes All Around

The Long Ride

Rotten Cabbage and Beets

Tartan Bonnet

Secret Meetings

Fog Vale

The Overseer

A Prickly Thistle

Bill’s Tale

Green Slime Cookies

Seizure

The Chamber

Clues

A House in the Woods

Like Mice in the Dark

Mother and Son

The Exiles

Darkest Deeds

The Letters

Ill Tidings

Visiting Mr. Timmo

Broken Boulders

Words of the Elder

Thoughts of Home

Tiberius’ Idea

Truckulus

A Cold Return

Heartwood of the Forest

Onslaught

The Battle of Fog Vale

Friends

The Dogcart

The Twelfth Law

Tobias Grim

Letter to a Friend

[]Preface

And Justice for None …

 

The tale of I am about to relay touches on notions of truth and justice—more precisely on the tragedy of injustice.

While the village of Thimble Down has long been grounded in the laws of our realm and a reasonable semblance of equality, it is also evident that wealth creates power and, worse, power corrupts Halflings as easily as it does Men-folk.

As I put pen to parchment, we will soon find our friend, the inestimable bookmaster Mr. Dorro, facing a new foe: The Halflings of Thimble Down themselves.

In all my years as a denizen of this hamlet, I’d never felt this much bitterness towards the place I called home. While we learned much about the mercurial nature of the good and bad, it was a lesson Dorro would learn the hard way.

Indeed, what was to befall him transcended the bounds of cruelty and into the realm of Evil—sprung from our own quiet lanes.

And now let us turn the page and begin our story, which begins on a snowy day in January, 1722, A.B., well over a half century ago. It was a day that began with great joy and festivity, but ended with tragedy and a shocking accusation, one that would haunt our Mr. Dorro to the end of his days.

So begins our sad Tale ….

 

Yours in literary kinship,

 

—Mr. Bedminster Shoe, scribe, Ret.

September 4, 1775, A.B.*

 

[*A.B. = After Borgo, first king of the Halflings]

[]Red Feathers

Ppffffft!

The arrow pierced the head of the stuffed goblin figure with incredible force, causing the lumpen mass to explode into bits of sawdust and straw.

Ppffffft!

Ppffffffffft!

Two more arrows took flight and found their targets, drawing cheers from the folks gathered nearby. Snow was falling lightly and temperatures chilly, but not unpleasant—certainly not enough to keep the villagers of Thimble Down away from the beloved Winter Festival.

“This next one is for me old mate, Farmer Duck,” cried Abel Parsnip, the weaver. “Take that, you orkus filth!”

Ppffffft!

Abel sent a bolt with blue feathers straight through the heart of a goblin, made from sacks of burlap stuffed with corn husks and sawdust. The folk of Thimble Down had no love for the enemy, as just a few months earlier, they had attacked the village and killed many friends and family including valiant Farmer Duck, who was struck down by an orkus blade.

The Battle of the Burrows was one of the most horrific events in the history of Thimble Down and none would ever forget it.

Ppffffft! Ppffffft!

The sound of flying arrows melted into the background as Mr. Dorro and his young friends Wyll Underfoot and Cheeryup Tunbridge strolled about the Winter Festival grounds, held in a pasture just to the southwest of the village. There were hundreds present on this fine January day, some from as far as the outlying villages of Nob, West-Upper Down, and Upper Down, the last of which had been destroyed in the battle and whose inhabitants were just getting back on their feet.

Brightly colored banners were waving in the breeze, while younglings had snowball battles in every corner and others built snowlings and placed silly hats on their heads. Merchants were on hand, selling everything from mittens and scarves to tender grilled beef on sticks, sweet pumpkin muffins, and mugs of hot spiced cider and mulled wine. Dorro and the children preferred flagons of steaming chocolate that warmed them through.

“Mr. Dorro, Cheery ‘n’ me want to go toss some snow pies at the Mayor. Can we go?” chirped Wyll.

“That’s ‘Cheery and I,’ frowned Dorro. “Haven’t you learned that in Mr. Shoe’s classes? Good gracious!”

He was referring to the school he had recently helped start; his old friend Mr. Bedminster Shoe had been installed as teacher-in-residence and classes were held at none other than the library that was Dorro’s second home. It was a grand scheme and quite popular throughout the village, as classes were free of charge—every Thimble Downer’s favorite price.

“Errr … sure, Uncle!” winked Wyll, as he grabbed Cheeryup’s hand and the two dashed off to play and make mischief. Dorro merely grunted to himself and continued toddling through the snowy fair.

Chop!

Dorro jumped at the sharp noise to his left and looked about in a combination of fright and annoyance.

“What, you don’t like to see goblin heads cleaved in half?”

There was a mighty laugh from Sheriff Forgo as he and others threw axes at goblin figures. To Dorro, this “sport” was grotesquely violent, but he understood the anger behind it.

“C’mon, Winderiver, you try it!”

“My dear Sheriff, you know I have little athletic coordination and, furthermore, that you are merely trying to make light of it!”

“Aw c’mon, ya sissy!” He gently grabbed Dorro by the sleeve and thrust a hatchet into his hand. “Now look—there’s the beastie. Just pretend he’s got a hold of yer nephew Wyll and is trying to run off. Now put that axe into his back!”

Dorro rolled his eyes—he hated being put on the spot—but now there was a small audience, including Minty Pinter, Bog the Blacksmith, and Dowdy Cray, the wagon builder, all hooting behind him.

“Throw it, Dorro! Hack his brains out!” they chanted.

“Oh fine!” snorted the bookmaster as he pulled back and let the axe fly. It sailed straight towards the effigy, and higher … and higher … until it disappeared over the target altogether. Everyone gasped as they heard a loud thwock!— followed by screams and shouts in the near distance.

“Now ya did it, Winderiver” growled the Sheriff as he and the others dashed towards the sounds of yelling and destruction. Dorro had no choice but to follow, his face ashen from whatever disaster he’d just created.

The group turned a corner of merchant’s booths to find a gaggle of Halflings swarming over the beer wagon run by Mr. Mungo and his wife, Farmer Edythe. Dorro had expected to find blood and gore, but instead, there were Thimble Downers laughing and singing as they clambered over Mungo’s table.

“Get out of the way!” bellowed Forgo in that formidable voice of his; suddenly the swarming villagers parted and made way for the lawman. “Is anyone hurt? Do we need to call Nurse Pym?”

“A nurse?” begged Mungo. “Someone owes me a vat of ale! That keg cost a pretty penny or two—it’s me special wheat lager. Took me over a month to brew!”

For there, behind the barman and his wife was a large wooden barrel, its golden treasure leaking all over the snow thanks to a hatchet buried deep in its side.

“Well, you got ‘im, Dorro! Killed this goblin right good!” laughed a relieved Forgo as he grabbed a mug and started filling it up with creamy ale. “Don’t just sit there folks—come get a sudsy cupful! It’s a gift from our own Dorro Fox Winderiver. He’s just gone from bookmaster to beer-master!”

Hollering with joy, dozens of Halflings began pushing their way towards the big barrel and grabbing mugs off Mungo’s table. Thimble Downers loved their brew and, as usual, all the more so when it was on the house.

“Mr. Dorro, I’m afraid I’ll have to send you the bill,” said Mungo with regret. “It’ll be eight crowns, at least, both for the beer and the barrel. But you can have your axe back.”

The bookmaster stood there red-faced and out of breath, happy that no one’s head had been split open by his errant axe, but still embarrassed and angry that Forgo had put him in such a spot. He knew, it wouldn’t be the first, nor the last time, the Sheriff would have a laugh at his expense.

 

  • * *

 

Forgo clasped his arm around Dorro and led him off into the celebrations, followed by Minty, Bog, and Dowdy, all of them quaffing their beers.

“I’m sorry, Winderiver, but it was the good end to a potentially bad situation.”

“It’s your fault, Sheriff, for egging me on! I have no coordination in the axe-throwing arts and you shouldn’t have coerced me.”

Dorro was growing more irked by the minute, but it only made Forgo smile more broadly.

“You underestimate yourself, Winderiver. Here, let’s shoot a few arrows. That, you must be good at.”

“I must admit, I did have a certain proclivity for archery as a lad. Granted, I haven’t shot a bow for many years, but I did have, shall I say, a certain gift for the endeavor,” noted Dorro with typically false modesty.

“Here then, take this trio of red-feathered bolts and sink them into the corn-goblins by the tree line,” croaked Forgo. “If you can strike even one of them orkus figures, I’ll pay for Mungo’s damn beer barrel myself! And if you miss, yer arrows will sail into the woods and, at worse, pinch the tail of a squirrel or two!”

That only made Minty, Bog, and Dowdy Cray squawk louder.

Still stinging from his earlier embarrassment, Dorro grabbed the bow from Forgo’s hands and fit it with a red-feathered arrow. He pulled back, squinted his eyes, and released the string.

Ppffffft!

The arrow missed the goblin and buried its head in the soil some ten feet beyond. This only made his comrades giggle louder and offer snide jokes.

“You sure showed that tuft of grass a lesson, Mr. Dorro!” guffawed tiny Minty Pinter, the traveling tinker. The bookmaster ignored him.

He fitted another and let it fly. Thwock!

“Ah-hah, I hit it!” cried Dorro. “Pay up, Forgo.”

“Not so fast, my friend. I said you had to hit a goblin—you merely put the arrow into the wooden post holding it up.”

Dorro growled, knowing Forgo was right and cursing the unfairness of it all. He knitted his eyebrows together and pulled back the last red-feathered arrow.

Fly, now—fly into the beast! he thought as he loosed the final bolt.

Sadly, it was not to be, as this last arrow sailed wide of the mark and flew deep into the trees of the Great Wood. By this time, Forgo and his mates were howling with mirth, while Dorro threw down his bow in disgust and stomped off into the crowd.

Behind him, Dowdy Cray shouted, “Oh dear, Mr. Dorro, I think you just killed a goblin-chipmunk. Maybe two!”

 

  • * *

 

An hour later, Dorro had forgotten about his dismal luck and happily found his chums Mr. Timmo, the metalsmith, and Bedminster Shoe. They were enjoying small ceramic cups of honeygrass whiskey, which warmed their toes immeasurably. Along with the quiet comradery and pipes full of Old Nob leaf, the three bookish friends enjoyed quiet conversation on a fallen tree that was serving presently as a perfectly serviceable bench.

“So, Dorro, what you’re saying is that you’d like to fix up the shelving in the library?” inquired Timmo.

“Yes, some of those racks are close to fifty years old and wobbly at best. I need your sense of engineering to keep them from collapsing on my visitors,” said Dorro. “Perhaps some new brackets and wall bolts will do the trick.”

“’Tis true, Timmo—I’ve seen the shelves for myself,” added Mr. Shoe. “The rack in the upper gallery is particularly vulnerable. I was just up there and ….”

Bedminster Shoe didn’t have time to finish his sentence, as Wyll and Cheeryup rushed up in a state.

“Mr. Dorro! Uncle!” they shouted.

“What is it, children? Can’t you see that I’m having a conversation? It’s not nice to interrupt your elders.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Dorro, but you really ought to know,” said 12-year-old Cheeryup, her blonde haired glistening with snowflakes and lips slightly bluish from the cold.

“Know what, young lady?”

“They found a body! Over beyond the archery games. There’s a dead corpus in the woods—and it’s stuck through the heart with an arrow.”

“An arrow?” asked Dorro. “What kind of arrow?”

Cheeryup thought for a second.

“I saw it in Sheriff Forgo’s hands with my own eyes, Mr. Dorro. It’s a red-feathered shaft!”

[]The Corpus

Dorro’s heart sank immediately.

The day had been one disaster after another and now, a dead body? The bookmaster knew immediately that the arrow was his, despite all the assurances from Sheriff Forgo that he’d only hit a squirrel’s tail at worst. His mind began racing with anxiety as he looked at Timmo and Bedminster Shoe. Finally, he managed to speak.

“Friends, I must go speak with the Sheriff. I believe a great tragedy has transpired and, worse, I am to blame. Partially, at least.”

Dorro carefully straightened his scarf and walked off towards the archery pitch with a glazed look.

As the bookmaster approached the scene, he saw many figures huddled together. They were looking intently at something and Dorro knew what it was—the corpus of some poor soul he’d accidentally killed.

“Please, let me through,” he asked and, upon seeing him, opened a gap. Like a prisoner walking to the gallows, Dorro entered the phalanx and moved towards its center. There, kneeling on the snowy ground was Sheriff Forgo, surrounded by faces he knew: Minty Pinter, Bog, Dowdy Cray, and the deputy, Gadget Pinkle. All of their faces were grim and one of them—Minty—was outright crying, hot tears running down his cheeks.

“Who is it, Forgo?”

The Sheriff looked up at his friend with great sadness on his face. “Come see for yourself. I still can’t believe it.”

Dorro approached and looked over Forgo shoulder. There, lying on the ground with a peaceful look upon his countenance was none other than Dalbo Dall, the village wanderer. Dalbo looked as if he was taking a pleasant nap, despite the fact that an arrow was stuck in his left breast. Cheeryup’s words rung true as, no question, the tail of the shaft was covered red feathers. His red feathers.

“I didn’t mean to … I’m so sorry, everyone … I …”

Words failed Dorro as the Sheriff stood and put a friendly hand on his shoulder. “It was an accident and I am perhaps to blame as well.”

“He’s a murderer!” someone in the back of the crowd sniped and, worse, others joined him.

“The bookmaster killed our friend!” shouted someone.

“Maybe we should stick him with a few arrows.

“He always hated Dalbo!” sniped another.

Dorro protested, “Not true! I’ve always been fond of Dalbo, despite his eccentricities.” Thinking back to his adventures with Grimble the goblin a year earlier, he added, “We had a special bond—I once trusted him with a special mission.”

“Then why did you shoot him down?” cackled a rough voice in the back. “In cold blood, as it were!”

“I didn’t—it was a shooting accident. Believe me!” Dorro was flustered and scared. This was turning into a mob.

“Awright, you rabble—simmer down!” Sheriff Forgo pulled himself to his full height of five-feet and one inch tall, and threw his shoulders back. Then he bellowed, “I’ve had enough of this malarkey. Dorro Fox Winderiver is no more of a murderer than I am a dainty little lass, so shut yer traps. Now!”

The mob quieted immediately, as there were few, if any, in Thimble Down who would dare tangle with Forgo when he was in this particular temperament. The Sheriff’s voice was daunting enough; his big, meaty fists were even more so.

“But what about poor Dalbo? He was our friend,” squeaked an anonymous voice in the group.

“We will conduct a full investigation,” snarled Forgo. Turning to the bookmaster, he spoke softer, “And unfortunately, Dorro, we need to go to the gaol for questioning. It’s the law and I have no choice in the matter. You’d better send Wyll home for some clothes—this may take a while.”

“Clothes?” asked Dorro, turning pale. “How long will this take?”

“It could be a few days. Sorry, Winderiver, but it’s the law. I’m obligated to treat this as murder, even if it’s accidental.”

Dorro turned white as a ghost, but Forgo pronouncement seemed to placate the mob, at least for the moment.

“Bog and Dowdy, I want you to bear Dalbo’s corpus to Nurse Pym for a post-mortem. Winderiver, you come with me, and the rest of you mugs go back to yer Winter Festival and beer guzzlin’.”

The grumbling crowd began to disperse, while Bog and Dowdy lifted Dalbo Dall’s small frame in the air between them, the deadly, red-feathered arrow still sticking out of his chest. Standing in the lightly falling snow, Minty Pinter was bawling over the death of his friend.

“Oh, poor Dalbo. I shall miss you forever, chum. I still can’t believe it … we’ve known each other our whole lives!”

The tinker was an absolute wreck; Mr. Mungo and Farmer Edythe walked closer and put their arms around him for support, but to no avail. Forgo put his hand on Dorro’s shoulder, leading him back towards the center of the village and the gaol house.

For once in his life, Dorro Fox Winderiver had nothing to say.

[]Thrip Triumphant

Rumors spread quickly that the bookmaster killed Dalbo Dall in a drunken rage, and Thimble Downers were gossiping like mad in its pubs and taverns. With evening settling upon the Winter Festival, the Halflings headed towards the nearest watering holes to hear the news. Coins were slapped on tables and barmaids served pints of ale and cups of honeygrass by the score. Nothing like a good scandal to stimulate business throughout the hamlet—even Mr. Mungo couldn’t resist this wave of thirsty customers, despite the nagging thought that he was profiting from his friend’s misfortune.

On the other end of the village, Dorro was sitting in Forgo’s office as the Sheriff himself took notes on the tragedy at the archery field.

“Sorry Winderiver, but as you know, we have to do this according to our book of laws—the Codex Borgonian. A charge of ‘Accidental Death’ must be filed and procedures followed.”

“But Forgo, you made me shoot the arrows!” barked Dorro—he could stand it no more. “You and your cronies kept pushing me all day. I didn’t mean to shoot anyone or anything!”

“I know, I know, but even if it’s an accident, we have to proceed—it’s the law.” Forgo had a pained look on his face. “There will be a trial.”

The door to the gaol squeaked open, letting in a gust of cold night air. In stepped the Mayor and his political backer, Osgood Thrip, both hissing and grinning like adders.

“So it’s true!” gloated Thrip, brushing snow off his bald head, “The great Dorro Fox Winderiver is a murderer. Could this day get any better?”

“Now, now, Osgood,” cautioned the Mayor, “you have to remember that a member of our community is dead and we must mourn his loss. Why, I greatly admired that poor fellow, Delbert Dill!”

“You mean Dalbo Dall, right?” added Thrip with a cough. “I too considered the vagabond an asset to our village, albeit a filthy, ill-mannered one.”

Dorro knew their posturing belied the fact that they both detested Dalbo and barely acknowledged his existence. He further realized the predicament he was in.

After scoring points in recent months against both the Mayor and Osgood Thrip, he was a prime target for their vengeance. He’d caught Osgood and his son in a horrific business scam, causing his family to be briefly exiled, and later forced the Mayor to fund his new school by something close to extortion. Now the two had Dorro with his back against the wall and would most certainly exploit it.

The balance of power had well and truly shifted and the bookmaster realized the worst was to come.

“It was an accident, Mr. Mayor,” mumbled Forgo. “I was there and witnessed the entire incident.”

“Not from what I’m hearing, Sheriff. Word on the lanes of Thimble Down is that this was willful murder. There will be a full trial!”

“No!” shouted both Forgo and Dorro in unison, but Osgood Thrip was already chiming in for the coup-de-grâce.

“You’d better hire a solicitor, Winderiver. I can recommend a few, if you’d like, but there are none better than the firm of Thrashrack, Shugfoot & Grumbleoaf.”

Dorro could see how much Thrip was enjoying this moment. “They’re expensive, but worth it. Of course, as a concerned citizen, Mr. Mayor, I recommend the village retaining Hamment Shugfoot for the prosecution.”

“Capitol idea, Osgood!”

“Mayor, it was a freak accident—I saw it!” Forgo was fuming.

“Sheriff, need I remind you that you work for me. And I say there are no accidents. Murder is murder and we shall have a trial. If Mr. Winderiver is innocent, then so be it. But if not—.

The Mayor let that thought hang there for a moment, then turned on his heel and walked out the door with Osgood Thrip in tow, leering maliciously.

“I can’t believe this, Forgo.” Dorro was pale and shaking by now. “Is this a nightmare? When will I awake?”

“‘There are no accidents—what a load of codswallop,” snarled the Sheriff. “This is revenge, plain and simple. Ya wronged ‘em too many times.”

The door to the gaol burst open again, letting the snow blow in, and Forgo’s deputy, Gadget Pinkle, ran inside.

“Sheriff! Come quick!” The tall, skinny lad was out of breath and pale himself. “It’s bad.”

“What is it now? We have enough troubles right here, Gadget.”

“It’s murder! Amos Pinchbottle just brawled with a Nob gent at the Hanging Stoat—and the Nob feller is dead! Worse, Amos is loose somewhere in the village, three-quarters drunk on wine and whiskey, and armed with a dirk.”

Sheriff Forgo leapt up to his armory cabinet and ripped the doors open. He threw a leather jerkin over his commendable bulk, and grabbed his favorite cudgel, which he affectionately called Gwendolin.

“Gadget, go get Nurse Pym and have her meet me at the Stoat. Winderiver, you come with me. We got me a real murderer to catch.”

[]Death & Whiskey

With evening about to fall, Forgo stood outside the gaol with Mr. Dorro, Bog, Dowdy, Farmer Barrow, and deputy Gadget. Snow was coming down harder by the hour and none looked happy.

“Look, we have a knife-wielding drunkard on the loose right now. Amos Pinchbottle killed a stranger and is hiding in the village. I want you fellers to fan out and find him—but do not engage the lunatic! Send word to me at the Hanging Stoat, where I’m headed to observe the corpus. Any questions?”

“What if Amos comes at us with his dirk?” asked Farmer Barrow, who wasn’t in the mood to be stabbed that night, nor any night actually. “I only have a pitchfork.”

“I would suggest you start running on those short, stubby legs of yours, Barrow. Can you do that?” The farmer nodded sheepishly. “Now let’s move out!”

The snow was beginning to blow in every direction as the Sheriff and Dorro slowly made their way to Mungo’s tavern, the site of much mischief in Thimble Down. There were few Halflings on the lanes, as most were at home with their loved ones or huddled in a pub, sipping hot mulled wine or a strong, dark ale.

As they approached the Stoat, it was clear it was in full swing, the noise and laughter of its revelers ringing loudly through the winter’s night. Inside the door, Forgo and Dorro were whisked from the tranquility of cold night into a blast furnace of Halflings in a pub. There were two roaring fireplaces, plus the heat and sweat of perhaps seventy villagers drinking and smoking their pipes. The volume was deafening, as each man and woman were talking a mile a minute, trying to be heard over the din.

The only quiet part of the pub was a corner, where Forgo could see flipped over tables and chairs—the site of the misdeed. He and Dorro pushed their way over until they found Nurse Pym, who was already lingering over the corpus.

“Well Jessie, we meet under the usual circumstances,” Forgo snorted. “What’s your official statement?”

“No question, he’s dead,” said the healer, who to the Sheriff’s frequent irritation, had an amazing grasp of the obvious.

“The chap’s name is Ben Tidewater and he’s a hay-bailer from Nob. According to Mungo, he and Amos Pinchbottle started arguing over whose village had the best whiskey—and things went downhill from there.”

“As both fools were drunk as skunks, the argument escalated until Ben pulled out a knife and went for Amos’ throat. Unfortunately for him, Pinchbottle was a hair faster and stabbed him three times in the midriff. One jab went too deep and nicked Tidewater’s heart—and that was that. On the brighter side, Ben never knew what hit him; he was already anesthetized by eight jiggers of whiskey and, with that wound, woulda been dead before he hit the floor.”

“Still, murder is murder,” said the Sheriff, then looking at Dorro, “Actually, this is a real murder, not some trumped-up charge. Do you have anything to add, Winderiver?”

“Not really, Sheriff—seems to be a simple crime of passion and drunken foolishness. I feel for Amos; when he sobers up and realizes what happened, he’ll be a sorry fellow. We all know the punishment.”

“’Tis true. Amos will be exiled to the eastern frontier for at least a year, maybe forever,” murmured Forgo. “Not many folks come back—it’s a harsh life and many are killed off by disease or a goblin’s black dart in the back.”

Dorro and Pym both shuddered at the thought of that terrible penalty, but knew the consequences of this crime.

“Jessie, I assume you’ll arrange for the body to be returned to Nob?”

“I will, Forgo—and stop calling me ‘Jessie’! You know I hate that name.”

The big lady’s face was turning red. She and Forgo had known each other since they were children and the Sheriff still called her by her given name, which she despised. To her, “Nurse Pym” was perfectly sufficient and respectful of her important position in Thimble Down—she was its only healer, and dealt with everything from births and minor cuts to broken bones and dead bodies.

“So Jess … errrr, I mean, Nurse Pym,” coughed the Sheriff, “Did you have a chance to look at Dalbo Dall’s corpus?”

“I did, and he’s dead, too.” Forgo rolled his eyes. “Again, it seems pretty straightforward. Dorro’s errant arrow landed smack in this chest. A freak accident, some would call it.”

“What about the strange look on his face?

“I noticed that, too—he looked at peace and rested. Dalbo must have been napping in the woods, on the cold snowy ground, but nothing’s too strange for him. Or at least, nothing was too weird. I have him in my storage shed, wrapped in a nice sack. Dalbo will be ready for burial at your word.”

“So your official review of the incident is ….”

“Death by accident, Sheriff. There was nothing criminal about it, though if I was the magistrate, I’d say that Dorro should pay his funeral expenses, as well as my fees. I doubt Dalbo had any family to speak of, so no one will demand restitution.”

Dorro felt hugely relieved to hear Nurse Pym’s report, but knew the Mayor and Osgood Thrip still wanted their pound of flesh. He wasn’t out of the woods yet.

The door to the Hanging Stoat banged open and in ran Gadget Pinkle. “Sheriff! Come quick!”

“Was is it, boy?” growled the lawman. “Did you find Amos Pinchbottle?”

“Alas, we did, Sheriff,” gabbed the pale lad. “He’s broken into the library and taken a hostage.”

“Oh dear!” screamed Dorro. “Not one of the children, is it?”

“No, that other fellow—Mr. Boot!”

“Boot? There’s no …” asked the bookmaster until the idea crystalized. “Good gracious, he has Bedminster Shoe. Sheriff, let’s fly! Poor Bedminster wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

Gadget added, “We should hurry—Amos has his blade pressed against Shoe’s neck and says he’s gonna use it!”

The comrades ran to the door and out in to the blustery night. Neither Dorro nor Forgo could stand any more deaths on this terrible day.

[]Amos Pinchbottle

There was a crowd gathering outside of the library, as more and more Thimble Downers heard about the drama within. Most were fond of the introspective, good-natured Bedminster Shoe, but more than anything, they enjoyed a good stand-off purely for the sake of entertainment.

There was, ironically enough, a boisterous murder of black crows also enjoying the festivities, along with their fellow rooks and jackdaws. They sat in a nearby hemlock tree, jockeying for the best branches and talking about how foolish Halflings were as a species—particularly those living in Thimble Down. Several were even laying bets on the outcome, three-to-one that the big Halfling within would kill the squirming skinny one. Regretfully, the Thimble Downers on the ground were just as tactless.

“Just think of it! Three dead bodies in one day—how thrilling would that be?” cooed Mrs. Potter, oblivious to the crows having the same conversation above her head. Unfortunately, many near her concurred, nipping at their flasks or puffing away on long ceramic pipes. They were jockeying for the best views and one or two were even taking bets whether Mr. Shoe would be killed or not.

“Clear a path! Clear a path!” shouted the skinny, gingered-head deputy as Sheriff Forgo and Mr. Dorro arrived. The lawman and bookmaster both stepped into the dim light cast by a few torches and one or two candles within the structure. Neither liked what he was seeing, no doubt recalling the terrible stand-off in this exact spot a year earlier—that one involving the villains Farroot Rumple and Bill Thistle [as recounted in the gripping saga, Thimble Down]. The present situation was eerily similar.

Within the library, they could see a lumpy shadow moving about slowly. After a few seconds, Forgo and Dorro realized that it wasn’t one figure, but two—Amos Pinchbottle holding Mr. Shoe in a vice grip with a knife at his throat.

“Amos, stand down and surrender!” bellowed the Sheriff. “There’s nothing to be gained here. Come along quietly and you’ll have a nice cot in the gaol to sleep on tonight. There’s no need for violence.”

A window sash cracked open on a few inches. “Come ‘n’ take me alive, Theriff!” croaked the visibly drunk Pinchbottle. “That Nob fool came at me first—I just gave ’im what he deserved! That ain’t no crime.”

“We can talk about that later, Amos. No need to hurt poor Mr. Shoe.” The Sheriff was trying to contain the situation and keep Pinchbottle from doing anything foolish. As all could see, Bedminster Shoe was terrified and wriggling dangerously; Forgo needed to buy some time.

“Why does this always happen at my library?” whined Dorro. “Amos could have gone anywhere, but no, it’s always here.”

“It’s a good tactical location, I suppose,” noted Forgo, studying the round, freestanding building—one of the very few in the village.

“A villain can keep the front door covered and, with all those windows, they have a circular view around the building to make sure no one sneaks in the back. Unfortunately, Winderiver, your library is the perfect place for a criminal’s last stand.”

Gadget ran up to the pair and again, his face was one of pure terror. “Sheriff! Mr. Dorro! Ummm … errr …well, it’s the children.”

“What children?” snapped Dorro.

“Ummm, your children! I mean, Wyll and Cheeryup.”

“What about them?”

“I just saw them.”

“Where, you idiot?” barked Forgo as quietly as possible.

“Actually, I only saw their rear ends,” fumbled Gadget. “They were scrambling through a window in the back. I’m afraid the children are in the library.”

Dorro had thought this day couldn’t get any worse, but it just did. “Those young fools! They adore Mr. Shoe and wouldn’t have done this stupid act otherwise. Sheriff, we need to act right now!”

“What would you have me do, Winderiver? Invite Amos outside for tea and chips?”

The bookmaster looked pensive for a moment. “Sheriff, Look!” yelled Dorro, pointing directly away from the library.

Forgo spun around, but saw nothing in the distance. When he pivoted back, he realized the ruse. Dorro had already sprinted up the library stairs and was entering the building.

Disaster and ruin were upon them all.

 

  • * *

 

“Amos? Amos Pinchbottle! This is me, Mr. Dorro,” whispered the bookmaster as he tiptoed through the dim, candlelit entryway.

“Step back, bookmasher!” drawled the sloshed assailant. Mr. Shoe was still in his clutches and his skin was as white as the snow outside. “One step more and Bedminther Shoob gets it!”

“Amos, I just want to talk. Do you know that I killed someone today? I accidentally killed my friend, Dalbo Dall.” Dorro couldn’t believe the words coming out of his own mouth, but it almost felt good to confess. “I didn’t mean to kill him, but it just happened. So I understand, Amos, I really do.”

“So it’s true—the great Dorro Fox Windy-river is a ruddy murderer, jus’ like me. Glad to have you aboard, mate! Now they can hang us both from the Meeting Tree, side by side like the best o’ friends!”

“Amos, we don’t hang criminals in Thimble Down. At the very worst, we could be sent to the eastern frontier. And furthermore, we would be tried by a jury and, who knows, perhaps exonerated of all charges.”

“Maybe I should go with Forgo to the gaol. I am mighty tired and a nap before the trial sounds good. What do you think, ol’ Beddy Shoe?”

Bedminster, still terrified, nodded slowly. Amos began to relax his grip on the teacher and scribe, but just then, a there was a series of loud bangs and crashes in the rare book room behind them.

Boom! Ker-plang!

“It’s a trap, you lying, rotten Winderiver!” screamed Amos as he tightened his knife against Bedminster’s throat. “This was the plan all along—pretend to be poor Amos’ friend while that fat Sheriff snuck through the back window. Well, I’m too fast for ya!”

The door to the rare book room clanked open and out stepped Wyll and Cheeryup, both coughing from the mounds of dust they’d stirred up. Their plan to surprise Amos and free Bedminster Shoe was dashed the moment Wyll’s foot caught the edge of a book shelf and sent it crashing to the floor. Both looked absolutely morose.

“We’re sorry!” cried Cheeryup. “We didn’t want to hurt anyone. We just wanted our friend Mr. Shoe back. Please don’t hurt him, Mr. Pinchbottle!”

“This is getting ridiculous!” replied Amos angrily. “Shoe, your job is done—I don’t needs ya anymore.”

With that, he shoved Bedminster Shoe across the room and into a wall, where he collapsed in a heap. Then he propelled himself across the room at terrifying speed, shoving the young ones back into the rare book room and heading straight for the front door. For good measure, he took a swing at Mr. Dorro and caught him on the side of the cheek, knocking the bookmaster to the floor.

Amos laughed manically as he vaulted through the door to freedom. To his regret, he forgot to check what was on the other side of the entryway.

“Who you callin’ ‘fat,’ you drunk skunk?”

Much to his surprise, it was Sheriff Forgo and, more precisely, Sheriff Forgo’s fist, which slammed into Pinchbottle’s nose with electrifying force, knocking him backwards. The criminal fell over the prostrate Mr. Dorro, who squeaked in pain beneath Amos’ bulk. In a moment, the Sheriff was upon the crook again, delivering three sharp blows to his face and head that resoundingly knocked Amos Pinchbottle out.

“Yer lucky I don’t do the same to you, Winderiver!” shouted a livid Forgo, as he hauled Amos’ body off the pile. “I should smack you senseless for that stupid act.”

Rising to his own feet, the wobbly defended himself, “I only did what I had to, Sheriff. Those children mean everything to me!”

Both looked at Wyll and Cheeryup who had stepped out of the toppled book room; Dorro dashed to them and clasped them in his arms. Angered as he was, Sheriff Forgo also felt a pang of jealously at the sight. If only he had someone he loved that much and loved him back.

Just as fast, he pulled himself out of the reverie and grabbed Amos Pinchbottle by the collar even tighter.

“How ‘bout we take a little stroll over to the gaol and I lock you up for a few days—or maybe weeks? And I apologize in advance if I punch and kick you a few more times before the night is over, but hey, everyone has a leisurely pastime. Mine is pounding criminals and scofflaws into the dirt. Now move it, scumwad!”

Unbeknownst to him, a number of crows, ravens, and jackdaws in the hemlock above began paying off their bets, cursing the fact that the big Halfling had failed to off the skinny, pale one.

Yet others were ecstatic, pocketing their winnings and heading back to their rookeries to celebrate, eat a few fermented grubs, and take a richly deserved winter’s nap.

[]The Solicitors

Several days passed as Forgo worked to restore peace within Thimble Down. The events of that one horrible day had rattled the entire community and many were still shocked over the death of Dalbo.

The Sheriff could do little to quell the gossiping and spurious comments about Mr. Dorro, but there was nothing to be done. The bookmaster had been allowed to go home and collect his wits, but Forgo had advised him that a formal trial was to be held the next Tuesday. He even heeded Osgood Thrip’s advice and sought out the advice of a solicitor, something he’d never done in all his years in Thimble Down. It brought Dorro no joy and felt a cold cynicism growing in his heart.

On the previous Thursday, the Halfling walked down the snowy High Street—much of it lined by windowboxes decorated with fanciful greens and bright red, yellow, and orange holly berries—but he was fully aware of his fellow villagers staring and whispering scandalous things. He stopped in front of a well-groomed burrow with large windows and green-painted panes, and took a deep breath. Dorro looked up at the sign.

 

[Shugfoot, Thrashrack & Grumbleoaf
__]Solicitors-at-Law since 1713, A.B.

 

He entered a welcoming interior, where a blue-enameled iron stove delivered delicious amounts of warmth. The anteroom of the firm’s burrow was richly appointed with leather-clad seats and settees, polished tables, and a silver tea service that must have cost a fortune.

Shugfoot, Thrashrack & Grumbleoaf could well afford it, as their skills were sought out by the most lucrative clients. Accordingly, the lawyers changed an arm and a leg for their work, billed meticulously by the quarter-hour.

The bookmaster hesitated and grew apprehensive; he suddenly turned back towards the door and made to leave when a sultry voice purred behind him.

“Aren’t you the famous Mr. Dorro? You are, aren’t you. We’ve been expecting you.”

Dorro turned and faced one of the most ravishing ladies he’d ever seen—Darwinna Thrashrack, solicitor-at-law. Not only was her voice beguiling, but she had luminous green eyes, nut-brown hair, and a perfectly shaped face and mouth. Well-respected gentlemen often turned into spineless jellyfish the moment she passed them on the lanes, much to the ire of their wives and fiancés. She was also tantalizingly unattached, which only made her more desirable.

“Are you just going to stand there, Mr. Dorro, or are you going to shake my hand?”

“Errrr, sorry. I am Dorro Fox Winderiver, as you, uhhh, already know.”

The bookmaster was completely tongue-tied in Darwinna’s presence and cursed himself for it.

“I was, errrmmm, popping in to see if your firm could help me with my little problem.”

Thrashrack smiled in return. “Of course, dear friend, we’re here to help. Sadly, your little problem is somewhat of a large problem but we’ve dealt with those, too. Why don’t I bring you to meet my colleagues and we can explore the options, yes?”

She ushered Dorro deeper into the burrow, which was fitted out with several formal chambers that served as offices for clerks and lawyers alike. The desks were littered with documents, stamps, inkwells, and feather quills.

In truth, one frequent visitor was Bedminster Shoe, who as village scribe would visit to get signatures on legal documents—wills, death decrees, birth certificates, and land-sale agreements—the stuff of legal commerce.

“What kind of tea can we get you, dear Dorro?”

“Anything with mint will do fine, thank you.” He was nervous and keenly aware that the further he stepped into the chambers of Shugfoot, Thrashrack & Grumbleoaf, the more gold would departing from his bank account.

Nothing was free here—not even the tea.

“And here we are,” cooed Darwinna, ushering him into a swank meeting room with an oval table in the center made of figured walnut and encircled with elegant chairs. “Mr. Dorro, I’d like you to meet my colleagues, Hamment Shugfoot and Tiberius Grumbleoaf.”

The dapper Shugfoot sprang to his feet and grasped Dorro’s hand. “Our bookmaster! What an honor it is, sir. I do so empathize with your plight; I’m sure the firm can help.”

Hamment Shugfoot turned to the next partner, a heavyset, balding fellow with wire-rim reading glasses and sharp, small eyes. He seemed to be scribbling something in a leather-bound book of his and not paying attention. “And this is Tiberius—.”

Grumbleoaf, true to form, stayed in his seat and merely grunted a form of greeting.

Shugfoot continued, “Our Tiberius isn’t one for much of the social graces, but he has one of the keenest minds around. Ignore that infernal book of his; he’s always writing in it, probably every dashed word we say. Keeps the damned thing locked up, too, so we have no idea what he scrawls. But there again, it’s the price we pay to have the Great Grumbleoaf on our side.”

Dorro was quite aware what a slick package Hamment Shugfoot was—suave and charming, his fox-like eyes often darting in Darwinna Thrashrack’s direction. Surely, he was as smitten by her as everyone else, Dorro figured.

“Now, to business!” interjected Darwinna and they all sat. A clerk breezed into the room with a pot and tray of tea cups and laid it down, departing just as quickly.

“The case at hand is the accidental death of one Dalbo Dall, late of Thimble Down. Mr. Dalbo was of no fixed address and owned no property as we know of. Yet, on Saturday last, he was struck by an arrow reputedly shot by our own Mr. Dorro and tragically killed.”

Dorro gulped at the description, still in disbelief that he had killed the gentle wanderer.

She continued: “The Mayor—who also serves as the magistrate of Thimble Down—has insisted we take this to trial, despite the accidental nature of the incident and depositions from both Sheriff Forgo and Nurse Pym as to the non-criminal nature of the act. Dorro, that means you didn’t mean to do it.”

He nodded, transfixed by the words coming out of Darwinna’s mouth; it was now all becoming very real to him. There would be a trial, there would be a verdict and, possibly, a substantial punishment.

The bookmaster thought of his modest fortune, which had sustained him these many years. A costly legal battle and fine could deplete him of his gold reserves and change his life forever. His mind wandered to his beautiful home, the Perch, overlooking the River Thimble and its lush garden and orchard.

If he were to go bankrupt, he might have to sell out and find a small burrow somewhere in town. Or perhaps he’d move into the library itself—true, he did own the building. Either way, the whole thing saddened him immeasurably and he started fidgeting with the silver buttons on his vest.

“Do you understand that, Dorro?”

“Umm, yes, I do—I really do,” added the glum fellow, his voice weak. “Will I be imprisoned a long time?”

“Oh dear, that decision is a long way off,” chimed in Darwinna. “Wouldn’t you agree, Hamment?”

“Oh yes, my good fellow! As you know, I’ve been retained by the Mayor to represent the village of Thimble Down in this matter, but even so, your trial will be a fair one and you do have some compelling evidence. I must admit, even as the prosecutor, I can’t deny the evidence of accidental death. A goodly fine, perhaps, but prison seems unlikely, unless I’m terribly mistaken. What do you say, Tiberius?”

For a second, the quill of the beefy Grumbleoaf stopped moving and he looked up over his tiny, gold-wire glasses.

“Harummph! A gaol term—pah! Wouldn’t think so. That would be petty revenge. But we must go through the process and the next few weeks will be unpleasant, Mr. Winderiver, I grant you that. It will get much worse before it gets better.”

“Tiberius has also consented to be the truth-finder in this case, Mr. Dorro,” continued Darwinna. “I will be your defending solicitor, while Hamment prosecutes. Tiberius will be weigh all the evidence and make a strong recommendation to the magistrate on his view. In our history, the word of the truth-finder is compelling and often sways the case one way or another. And Grumbleoaf is about as fair a Halfling as you’ll find in all the counties.”

“Hruhmmph!” coughed Tiberius, though whether that was a laugh or an objection, Dorro couldn’t say. Either way, he better knew the lay of the land, as Darwinna Thrashrack continued to explain the judicial process to him and what to expect.

As Grumbleoaf had aptly noted, he realized, it would surely get worse before it got better.

[]The Cell Next Door

Dawn broke clear and crisp across Thimble Down.

Dorro rose early, peeking out his front windows toward the river. It hadn’t frozen over, but would soon. There were already slabs of ice floating on the frigid water, while a few brave ducks and geese wandered by the shore, looking for their breakfast.

Dorro lit a fire in his kitchen’s grand oven and began baking muffins, more to take his mind off his woes than anything else. He minced a few of the apples stored in his larder since Fall—Flitwycks, to be precise—as well as conjured up a batter of flour, corn starch, sugar, cinnamon, butter, cloves, sow’s milk, more butter, and an egg or two.

He mixed the tart apples into the batter and put them in a well-greased muffin pan that Mr. Timmo had made for him many years earlier. It was large enough to accommodate twenty-four muffins, minus the one he would gobble down immediately after removing it from the oven.

Thus when Wyll awoke and Cheeryup knocked on the front door, there would be twenty-three glorious, tasty apple-cinnamon muffins awaiting them for breakfast.

“Deese arr reely guud, Miffer Durro!” said Cheeryup, mid-chew, a few hours later. Wyll nodded in agreement and made a sound that came out as, “Yefferee, Urnkle.”

Dorro was pleased, but his mind again became agitated. His life had been one spent pursuing his own personal interests, thanks to the commendable wealth left to him by his parents and grandfather Lorro, who had planted the ancient orchard from whence these apples had come.

Certainly, there had been challenges and none more so than in the past year when Wyll had come into his life unexpectedly, but still, his adult years had been largely blissful. This was different—his current predicament could mean the end of that contemplative life.

After breakfast, both Wyll and Cheeryup gave Dorro hugs as they cleaned up and told him things would be alright. He wanted to believe them, but still felt uneasy. It was in that frame of mind that Dorro verily leapt out of his chair when there came a loud rapping on his front door.

“Who might this be?” he asked. “I’m not expecting anyone on this cold morning!”

Dorro turned the knob and pulled, only to find a shivering Gadget Pinkle standing there. “Come in, deputy—you’ll catch your death out there!”

Gadget gladly entered and, as with all visitors, craned his neck around to take in the splendors of the Perch—it was surely one of the nicest burrows in all Thimble Down.

“Have a muffin, young friend.” The deputy grabbed one and thanked the bookmaster, but his face was grave. “What news have you for me on this day?”

“It’s not good, Mr. Dorro. I’m afraid you need to come with me.”

“What? The trial isn’t for days!” Dorro was beginning to panic. “Sheriff Forgo said I could await the proceedings at home in peace and quiet.”

“And so it was, Mr. Dorro, but the Mayor overruled him. Last night, he and Osgood Thrip came to the gaol with a Writ of Detention, officially remanding you to custody on this date. In short, the Mayor wants you to await the trial in the gaol where Forgo can watch you. He thinks you might make a run for it, beggin’ your pardon, sir.”

“That’s outrageous! How dare he?” The bookmaster began turning red and flustered. “And what if I don’t come? Then what?”

“The Writ says that your refusal would be an admission of guilt. Worse, the Mayor said he’d order the Sheriff to forcibly bring you in. Here’s a copy of the Writ, if you want to read it over.” Gadget opened his shoulder bag and pulled out a parchment page.

“Oh never mind! Give me fifteen minutes and I shall pack a few belongings. Wyll, I may need you to bring over some personal items later when I think of them. I want you to pack as well—you’ll be staying with Cheeryup and her mother for the duration. I’m sure she’ll understand and I will reimburse her for your room and board. You might as well take the muffins, too—I shan’t be eating any more.”

Wyll and Cheeryup were as mortified as Dorro, but said nothing. They just wrapped their arms around him and clung tightly.

 

  • * *

 

Forgo had already apologized about five times before he showed Dorro back to his cell. “The Mayor really has it in for you, Winderiver. I’m sure ol’ Osgood Thrip is pulling his strings.”

“I know your hands are tied. But I need one favor—please send Gadget over to Shugfoot, Thrashrack & Grumbleoaf and relay my predicament to Darwinna Thrashrack. She might want to appeal directly.”

“Consider it done. Nuncheon will be here shortly; if there’s anything we do well here at the gaol is to serve prisoners a decent meal.”

“I’m not too hungry as you might guess, but I appreciate the sentiment.”

“Your friend in the next cell will be ravenous, no doubt.”

“Friend?”

Suddenly, there was a loud snort in the adjoining cell and the sound of a squeaking bedframe. “Did someone say, ‘Lunch?’ Ooooo, me favorite time o’ day!”

“Don’t tell me ….” groaned Dorro.

“Where did you think we’d put him—at a lovely bed & breakfast?”

“Is that me ol’ chum Windy-river, you stinkin’ rat!” Amos Pinchbottle doubled over coughing in his cell, but then rose to his feet and pressed his stubbly face to the bars. “Oy, it is—me favorite lyin’ fink!”

“For the record, Amos, Dorro had nothing to do with those two younglings sneaking into the library,” said the Sheriff. “I was there and he was as surprised as you were. The entire reason Winderiver went into the building was to prevent you from hurting them, you chowderhead.”

“Oh well, in that case you have me ‘umble apologies, Mr. Dorro, sir,” whined Amos. “And sorry about punching you in the noggin’. I was a little tipsy at the time.”

“Bah! You were drunker than five Halflings, Pinchbottle, and ya know it!” laughed Forgo as he ambled back towards the front of the gaol. “Now, you two play nice or I’ll come back and knock some heads. You know I’ll do it, Amos!”

The ne’er-do-well unconsciously touched his head, remembering the beating Sheriff Forgo had given him the other night. While he was a good-sized Halfling, few in the village would take on the Sheriff in fisticuffs and risk a confrontation with those boulder-sized fists of his.

“So, welcome to me humble little inn, Mr. Dorro,” leered Amos. “It ain’t much, but I call it ‘ome. Staying long?” He laughed, though Dorro was not amused.

“As briefly as possible, thank you, but one never knows.”

“And how’s me chum, Mr. Beddy Shoe?”

“Still in bed with bruises and bumps galore, no thanks to you. You’re lucky you didn’t kill two Halflings, Amos Pinchbottle.” Dorro was still angry at the episode and the way he abused poor Bedminster.

“I do feel bad, at least a little,” whispered Amos. “Honestly, I don’t even remember the whole evening. I went to the Hanging Stoat for a little tipple of honeygrass whiskey, but then it gets kind of blurry. I vaguely remember the obnoxious gent from Nob, but nothing of the knife fight. I swear it was in self-defense, but well—I don’t remember, do I? Nor any of the shenanigans at the library. If I hurt your friend Shoe, I do apologize. I suppose I do have a bit too much to drink sometimes.”

“You think? Seriously, Amos Pinchbottle, you’re a drunkard and a menace to Thimble Down. At least I murdered someone by accident!” Dorro almost choked on his own words—he backtracked immediately. “I mean, because of a tragic accident, not because of my own folly and indulgence.”

“What do you think’s gonna happen to us?” Amos sounded like a child being sent to his room. “I’m scared.”

“You should be, Amos, and so am I. Our cases are different, but murder is murder. If we are convicted, we could both receive stiff penalties—fines, extended gaol time, or exile. Fortunately, I think exile would be extreme. Neither of us committed crimes with intent—mine was an accident and yours drunken foolishness. Yet I’ve heard of scofflaws being pressed into maritime service for twenty years—that’s a fate worse than death or at least, it would be for me. I’m not much of a sailor and after my unfortunate visit to Water-Down last Summer, I never want to see a ship again!”

“As they long as they don’t stretch me neck, I’m good!” laughed Amos, pretending to be hanged on a gibbet.

“I told you before, we don’t hang criminals in Thimble Down. But the way the Mayor and Osgood Thrip despise me, they might make an exception!”

Without thinking, Dorro reached up and touched his own neck. They don’t hang Halflings, do they? He hoped he was right.

[]Burial

“Sheriff, please! Dalbo and I were friends in our own strange way.” Dorro pressed his face against the bars of his cell and pleaded with the big lawman, who had just brought him breakfast of seeded rolls, butter, cider, and a tin of Old Nob pipe tobacco. “I must go to his funeral. You remember how he helped Grimble find a new home last summer.”

Forgo frowned. “Oh fine,” grumbled the lawman. “But don’t get up to any shenanigans or it’ll be your doom.”

“And what about me, Sheriff? I’m sober as a magistrate and, heck, Dalbo Dall was me pal, too.” This was the gruff voice of Amos Pinchbottle from the adjacent cell. “Me and him spent many an hour laughin’ it up in the Great Wood. He was a great one to share a bottle with and, boy, could Dalbo spin a tale. He told me things I still don’t believe!”

“I’d be a raving lunatic to let you out, Amos. After the other night’s performance—a murder followed by the attempted murder of Mr. Bedminster Shoe, I think you can stay behind bars until your trial and sentencing. And hopefully exile!”

“Nooooo!” Amos sobbed like a toddler. “Sheriff, please! Dalbo ‘n’ me were thick as thieves. Let me go say goodbye to me ol’ mate.”

Sheriff Forgo knitted his brows together and looked like he was going to blow his lid. Instead, he took a different tact.

“I know I will absolutely regret this, but you can go, Amos, you flippin’ idiot. But you will be wearing manacles on yer wrists and ankles. I’ll also bring my cudgel in you try anything; in that case, I’ll simply beat you senseless. Sound okay?”

“Thank you, ol’ Sheriff Forgo, me boy-o. Amos will be a good lad, I promise!”

The Halfling did a merry jig behind his bars as Forgo left to make preparations. Across the way, Dorro looked at Amos and wondered if the Sheriff had made the right decision.

Dorro didn’t know Pinchbottle well, but after the past day, he regarded his cellmate as a lunatic and menace to society.

 

  • * *

 

The Sheriff’s wagon drew closer to the Great Wood; in the back sat the prisoners Dorro and, in chains, Amos, while deputy Gadget watched them intently. In his mind, the lawman was turning over the events of the past few days. He still couldn’t reconcile that Dorro Fox Winderiver was now his lawful prisoner, accused of murder and about to stand trial. Forgo knew his friend was both innocent and that he played a role in the accidental death of Dalbo Dall, but the Mayor and that rotter Osgood Thrip were set on putting Dorro in the dock and making him pay for past transgressions.

What a pair of slimy stoats—that Osgood and our illustrious Mayor, thought Forgo. I’d like to see them in the back of my wagon, shackled and manacled to the nines! But it’s too late now.

“Whoa, Tom! Pull up now,” Forgo shouted to his long-suffering pony. He hopped off the wagon and gave his shaggy conveyance a feedbag of oats. He stroked the creature’s floppy ears. “You’re a good lad, Tom. I wish half of these Halflings were as decent and reliable as you.” The pony ignored him and tucked into its lunch instead.

“Now, Dorro and Amos, off the wagon and no funny business!” he snarled at both prisoners, cradling his cudgel. “One false move and I’ll whack you with Gwendolin. And Gadget, you have my full permission to knock their brains in.”

The tall, red-haired boy grinned and thought about heroically quelling a prisoner escape.

“Let’s go!” barked Forgo as he roughly grabbed Amos by the sleeve and tugged him towards the gathering of mourners.

There were about two hundred Thimble Downers gathered in the snowy clearing, in the midst of which sat the Meeting Tree, a gigantic elm tree that was everyone’s favorite gathering spot. Via a special decree from the Mayor, under some pressure from the village folk, the burial site of Dalbo Dall was allowed to be sited near the canopy of the Meeting Tree—he was the first and only Thimble Downer accorded that honor because of his long connection to the Great Wood. It was also his favorite place to sleep off a heavy night’s drink, also a consideration.

“Hear ye, hear ye!” bellowed Farmer Edythe, who volunteered to lead the burial comments since there was no organized religion in the Halfling world, nor any real spiritual leaders.

(Indeed, the closest thing they had to a religion was simply spending time in the Great Wood with friends and family, or punting on the River Thimble with a pipeful of Old Nob.)

“Neighbors, we are gathered here to say goodbye to our dear friend, Dalbo Dall,” Edythe continued in her big, blaring voice. There were a few sobs in the crowd.

“Dalbo, as you know, was a special friend to all. Yes, he was a strange fellow—even downright weird. But still, he was kind as a sparrow, clever as a fox, and sweet as an apple. Never harmed another soul in his entire life and enjoyed every moment he drew breath. We should all be so lucky.”

“Alas, we lost poor Dalbo the other day in an accident and, I want to be clear, me and many others know it was just an accident. There are some who want to punish the fellow who drew the arrow that killed the wanderer, but errors happen and Mr. Dorro is just as much a victim as Dalbo Dall was. Do not harden your hearts to our beloved bookmaster.”

Nevertheless, as Dorro noticed, a few in the throng shot him dirty looks, holding him accountable for Dalbo’s death. It made him feel even worse, but he was grieving, too. However, a few in the group shouted out “Hear, hear!” to affirm Edythe’s words; certainly, Dorro had some friends out there.

“Is there anyone who’d like to share a special memory of Dalbo before we deliver his corpus unto the soil’s warm embrace?”

At that, tiny Minty Pinter stepped out into the clear, weeping and distraught.

“Aye, I’ve known Dalbo me whole life. We grew up together and had many misadventures I wouldn’t trade the world for! Why, there was the time we stole twenty of Farmer Padgett’s rabbits and let ‘em loose in the middle of the village on market day. Was sheer pandemonium for hours, as folks screamed and ran from them hoppin’ bunnies.”

“Dalbo ’n’ me was on the roof of a burrow, laughing like demons at all them rabbits and hollerin’ folks. They was all rounded up eventually and, I believe, many Thimble Downers enjoyed a free coney supper that night. Farmer Padgett never forgave us, a-course!” There was warm laughter at the memory from those in the crowd.

“Then there was the time we stole some fireworks and set them off in ol’ man Wilton’s tavern deep into the night. Why, we burned the place to the ground in our foolishness and Mr. Wilton tanned our backsides good. Neither Dalbo nor me sat in a chair for no less than two weeks!”

More laughed and mirth ensued before Minty turned serious.

“Truly, though, Dalbo Dall was like a brother to me and I shall miss his good cheer and comradeship. Many a time I was taking my wares from here to Nob or Upper Down, and back again, and Dalbo would hitch a ride. Oh, the stories he told and laughs we shared.”

Minty’s face crumbled as tears ran down his cheeks. Many in attendance did the same thing, some with comforting words like

“There, there Minty—we all loved him” or “He was a good lad, Minty—we shall never forget ol’ Dalbo.”

The tiny tinker piped up once more: “Again, he was like a brother to me and, in some ways, I think he was my brother. You knew how much we looked alike and talked alike. I can’t explain how that might be, but there are lots of things I don’t understand.”

“Truly, I don’t remember Dalbo ever having parents; one day he simply walked out of the Great Wood naked as a wee bairn and lived among us his whole life—sun, rain or snow. How can that be? How did Dalbo live in the forest, even as a boy? And why didn’t anyone ever question it?”

There was silence in crowd, but finally a woman’s voice spoke up. It was Mrs. Fowl.

“Why Minty, we never thought nuthin’ of it. He was always such a contented boy and never seemed to want for anything, aside from a few pennies and bite to eat. Once a week, Dalbo would show up at my door with his crazy grin, but not saying much. I knew he wanted a piece of pie, so I kept one ready for him, plus gave him a penny or two.”

“In return, he’d help weed the garden or pick apples, or shovel the snow off my path. As for nights, I never knew where he slept, but figured he crawled into a stable somewhere. It wasn’t until much later that any of us figured out he always stayed out under stars, but the lad never complained about it, even once. He loved the Great Wood and would defend it with his life, I know he would.”

Abel Parsnip, the weaver, stepped up next.

“What about the Battle of the Burrows last Fall? Why, folks all over swear they saw Dalbo Dall leadin’ the trees in the Great Wood, urging them to fight the goblins and smash ‘em to the ground. Me whole life, I heard that Dalbo could talk to the trees and animals and, now, I really believe he could.”

There was one more cough and out stepped Dorro, trembling with fear. “I know I’m the one to blame for us being here today and I regret it more than anyone. But I loved Dalbo, too, and as Abel just said, there was more to him than meets the eye. Some thought of him as a bumbling drunkard, but he really did have a special kinship with the trees and animals here; he said he even talked to the fish and the rocks and I believe him!”

There was some giggling in the crowd, but it was shushed away. The bookmaster continued.

“Dalbo was a magical fellow and I think there was more to him than we’ll ever know. I bet there are folks here who know more than they’re saying, but in any case, I want Dalbo to know I’m sorry and if there was any way to get him back, I would do it. I hope the trees are listening to us right now. And if they can communicate that message to Dalbo, I would humbly appreciate it.”

By now, the tears were flowing like the River Thimble after a Springtime rain and not just Dorro. The whole village was simply inconsolable over the loss of this special friend—and rightly so.

[]The Trouble with Cousins

Not wanting to get caught up in the mass exodus of Thimble Downers heading home after the burial, Sheriff Forgo gave Gadget the sign and they hustled Dorro and Amos Pinchbottle onto the wagon. With a shake of the reins, Tom the pony began trudging down the snowy track towards the gaol and his warm stable.

“Those were fine words, Winderiver,” said Forgo from the driver’s bench. “I know you’re innocent and after today, so does half of the village. We only have to convince our booby of a Mayor of that fact.”

“I meant every word,” added Dorro, as much to himself as anyone. “I can’t believe the fix I’m in. It seems like a nightmare the more I think about it.”

Forgo steered Tom down a side trail, through a patch of tall rhododendrons still thick with green, leathery leaves, despite the cold. It was peaceful in the wintry woods, and for a moment, all was tranquil.

“Anyway, Dorro, I’m sure we’ll figure it all out—never you fear. One more thing ….”

But Sheriff Forgo never got a chance to finish that thought as a bag filled with heavy sand appeared from a nearby pine tree, swinging on a rope, and struck him clean in the noggin. One second he was speaking calmly and the next he was slumped on the buckboard, unconscious and still.

“Gadget, get out your club!” Dorro screamed at the gangly deputy, who was fussing to get the cudgel out of his belt loop. Yet he too wouldn’t get very far as Amos Pinchbottle pulled back his manacled legs and delivered a mighty kick that sent the boy sprawling over the side of the wagon and into a snowdrift. Gadget didn’t move after that.

“Come out, boys! All’s clear,” laughed Amos, staring at Dorro like a crazed loon.

Suddenly, two scraggly Halflings emerged, one from the rhododendron patch and another from the pine tree they’d just passed. “Howdy Amos. We done good, eh?”

“Sure enough, Woodsy. You swung that bag just perfect—heck, you knocked out a flippin’ windbag with a sandbag. Get it?”

At that they all laughed like fools.

“Winderiver, I’d like you to meet me cousins. This here is Woodsy Pinchbottle, and his brother, Barker—me own kin and relations. We growed up together and ha’ been through thick ‘n’ thin together. A-course, they wouldn’t let me go to gaol for the simple act of dispatching a drunken fool from Nob, so they’re here to arrange my ‘bail’.” They all snickered again. “Now Woodsy and Barker, get me unshackled here and let’s tie up the boy and our fat Sheriff. Manacle ‘em both to a tree. That’s payback, I tells ya—nobody chains up Amos Pinchbottle like a dog!”

“What about me, Amos? Aren’t you going to chain me up, too?”

The ratty looking prisoner laughed again. “Nah, Dorro me ol’ pal. Me and my cousins are gonna escape this rotten village and head down to Water-Down to make our fortune. But just for insurance, we’re gonna bring a hostage. And that would be you.”

“No please, Amos! Just leave me here,” the bookmaster was desperate not to have his world turned upside-down again. “You’ll move faster without me and can make your escape. I won’t tell anyone.”

“Sorry, poor feller, but you already heard us sayin’ where we’re headed, so ….” Amos let that thought linger and Dorro was just about to retort when the lights went out. Woodsy had crept up behind him and struck Dorro with the same sandbag he’d used to knock out Sheriff Forgo.

“Load the bookmaster in the bed, Barker, and let’s go. That funeral mob will be coming down this track any minute, and I want to be halfway to Nob before they find Sheriff Lumberhead and his deputy tied up. Ride out!”

 

  • * *

 

Sheriff Forgo awoke on a cot and didn’t know where he was. Where is everyone? And why is it dark out?

He felt a dull pain in his head as he tried to sit up and slumped back down.

“Ah … sorry about that, Sheriff, sir. Perhaps my cousins were a little hasty,” said a disembodied voice in the darkness.

“Who said that?” Forgo was confused, but again tried to sit up. This time he was successful and tried to get a bearing on his surroundings. Slowly things came into focus and he knew he was in his own gaol, resting on a bunk back in one of the cells. “Is that you, Pinchbottle?”

“Aye, ‘tis me,” said the doleful prisoner, who sat in the adjacent cell. “You have my total, heartfelt apologies, thought I figure it won’t count for much. Poor Amos is bound for the dock and there’s nothing I can do about it now.”

“The last thing I remember is bringing you and Winderiver down the trail on our way back here. What mischief did you perpetuate this time?” Forgo rubbed his sore head and knew something bad had happened.

“You’ll find out sooner or later, so I might as well tell ye,” continued Amos. “Me cousins came to spring me from yer lawful clutches and may have banged you on the bean. A mite harder than I would have suggested, if that counts for anything.”

“It doesn’t, you piece of sod.”

“I figger you’d say that. In any case, me cousins Woodsy and Barker engineered a fine rescue and also immobilized yer deputy Pinkle. Happy as larks, we made a good run for it, down the Nob Road to the south. Darned if we didn’t run smack into Constable McGinty and a few of his deputies, who were out lookin’ for a gang of highwaymen. It was a critical mistake and we were taken into custody yet again.”

“And what, pray tell, was your error?” Forgo started to feel better knowing that McGinty caught the rotter and brought him back to Thimble Down. He’d buy the constable an ale or two next time he came into the Hanging Stoat.

“I forgot to gag my cellmate here and well, he spilled the beans, as it were. Can’t say as I blame ‘im; I’d-a done the same.”

“And that would be …?”

“Hello Forgo.” The Sheriff knew the bookmaster’s voice anywhere.

“Dorro!” The lawman sprang from his bunk and crossed to the other cell, lighting a candle to see through the blackness better. “Come closer; I can’t see you in the dark.”

From the depths of the cell came a figure that shuffled slowly; it was Dorro Fox Winderiver, but Forgo was still horrified.

“Dorro, what happened?”

Pinchbottle took up the narrative: “I’m afraid, Sheriff, that my mistake was not to gag Winderiver; thus, when we came upon Constable McGinty and his deputies, one helluva brawl broke out. Your boy Dorro shouted out that he was a prisoner, cluing in McGinty that we wuz on the run; in fact, he’d already heard you had me in the clink. He knows Woodsy and Barker all too well and put it together in a heartbeat.”

“Once the big copper alerted his men, they clambered onto our wagon faster than you can say, “Handcuffs ‘n’ shackles!” and the fighting began. A great many punches were thrown and, regrettably, your venerable bookmaster was in the thick of it, more as a punching bag than anything else. The Nob coppers thought he was an escapee, so they gave him a good beating. I apologize to you, Mr. Winderiver, for the pummeling ye received. T’was not my intent.”

“Hrmmmph,” was all Dorro could manage to say through his bruised lips and swollen jaw.

“So how did you two get back here, Amos?” Forgo was now enrapt in the story, despite the beating his friend had received.

“Ah, well, good Constable McGinty and his deputies gave us a good thrashing and brought us back to his gaol, which is a tad nicer than yours Forgo, if truth be told. If you ask me, you might spend a little silver on redecorating and getting some lively drapes and throw pillows—but I digress.”

“In short order, we were accused of mutiny and escape, including your friend Winderiver here, much to his misfortune. The lad was bleeding and largely unconscious, and so couldn’t defend himself as they levied charges on him. Eventually, a gang from Thimble Down, including Deputy Pinkle—who wasn’t injured as bad as you—Mr. Mungo, Bog, and Dowdy were alerted to the situation and came to Nob as if black wolves were on their trail.”

“After much discussion, McGinty decided to remand me’self and Winderiver back to the jurisdiction of Thimble Down to face existing and new charges, while he kept ol’ Woodsy and Barker Pinchbottle to face their due down there. That seemed to make everyone happy and, thus, here we are back safe and sound in yer crummy, dilapidated gaolhouse. End of story.”

“Thank you, Amos, that was well told. As for your poor, shameless treatment of Mr. Winderiver, however, all I say is ….”

At that, Forgo reached through the bars and grabbed Pinchbottle by the shirt, pulling him forward with tremendous speed.

Clang!

That was the sound Amos’ head smacking into the iron bars, rendering the villain instantly unconscious. The Sheriff matter of factly grabbed a set of keys off the wall peg and entered the cell, mostly to make sure Pinchbottle was still breathing and that he hadn’t broken his neck. Satisfied that had only knocked him out, Forgo turned his cellmate.

“C’mon Dorro, let’s get you across the way. I’ll call Nurse Pym and she can treat your bruises and bumps. Gosh, you look awful, lad.” In truth, the lawman felt terrible for Dorro’s run of bad luck, which only seemed to be getting worse. His trial was coming up, adding insult to injury. He led his friend into the adjoining cell and got him settled.

“Thank … you … Forgo ….”

“Don’t talk, Dorro—you’re battered up good. Just rest. You must be in pain because I’ve never been known you to keep you trap shut this long!” Forgo laughed, but knew the bookmaster didn’t share the joke. “I’ll get Pym.”

Walking back to the front of the gaol, the lawmen paused for a moment.

I’ll get you back for this, Amos Pinchbottle. No one messes with a pal of Forgo’s and gets away with it. Smackin’ yer ugly mug into the bars was just the down payment.

For good measure, Forgo spat on the dirty floor.

But y’know, the thug is right about one thing—this place really is a dump.

[]On the Case

“We can’t not do anything, Wyll! You know that Mr. Dorro wouldn’t leave us in gaol.”

“I know, but we’re just younglings and we don’t know much about the law.” Dorro’s nephew was at his wits end. “I’ve been trying to think of a plan but Cheeryup, but I’m only twelve years old!”

Cheeryup giggled. “That’s never stopped us before. Let’s ask Mr. Shoe, silly goose.”

Along with about ten other children, Wyll and Cheeryup clambered up the snowy, well-worn steps of the library and entered the building, embracing the warmth of the wood-burning furnace in the cellar that kept the place toasty.

Despite Mr. Dorro’s detention, classes went on as usual and Bedminster Shoe was reveling in his role as Thimble Down’s first school teacher in a generation.

“Come now, please—we have to get started on time!” Mr. Shoe called to the youngsters, leading them to a section of the building that had just been fitted out with desks and chalkboards. Needless to say, they had plenty of books to read and learn from.

“Today we’re going work on mathematics first, and then back to reading the adventure stories of your choice. Lastly, we’ll start our oral presentations on your reading, starting with Missy Cornbottom. What will you be sharing with us, Missy?”

A girl with jet-black curly hair and several missing teeth excitedly replied, “It’s The Witches of Water-Down by Esperanza Dewey, a fable about sea-going nymphs and witches who ensnared sailors … and even commanded deep-sea monsters to destroy the port city. It’s a terrifying tale!”

“Wonderful, Missy, but if you’ll all first get out of a sheet of foolscap and pencils, we’ll begin with our ongoing work on addition and subtraction, as if you own a shop and need to keep your account ledger up to date.”

Cheeryup and Wyll could both tell how much Mr. Shoe enjoyed teaching, as he was constantly coming up with fresh, entertaining ways to teach them rather boring things.

Two hours later, Shoe adjourned class and the children all sprang from the library, running out side to toss snowballs at make-believe witches and sea monsters, or dash home for nuncheon. Wyll and his constant companion lagged behind.

“Mr. Shoe, can we speak with you?”

“Of course, of course,” he replied as he erased the blackboard. “Worried about Mr. Dorro, are we?”

“Yes sir,” began Cheeryup. “We feel helpless and don’t know how to help him—and we know he’d help us! What should we do?”

“Granted, young lady, you are just young folk and aren’t solicitors—at least not yet.” Bedminster winked at her, knowing that Cheeryup Tunbridge could well become a solicitor someday and probably a damned good one at that. “But there are things you can do to assist your friend and uncle.”

“Please tell us!”

“If I were you,” replied the tall, balding, and rather gangly schoolmaster, “I’d do what Dorro would do—conduct an investigation. Interview the participants and witnesses to the death of Dalbo Dall. Once you conduct them, review all your notes and see if there are any themes or strange errors that pop up. Those will be your important clues and you can bring them to Dorro or his solicitor, Darwinna Thrashrack.”

Even as he said her name, the children could see a moony look in his eyes, as if he were admiring her beauty in person.

The girl said, “An excellent idea, Mr. Shoe. We can talk to Dowdy, Bog, Mr. Timmo, and Sheriff Forgo today.”

“That’s a good list, young lady, but judging by the funeral I think a pivotal player in this saga is Minty Pinter. He seemed especially broken up about Dalbo’s death and, while I know they were friends, it seemed like there was more going on that met the eye. I think he’ll prove a key witness.”

The two thanked Mr. Shoe and bolted from the library with newfound zeal. They headed for the wagon drover’s shop on Moon Lane, just off the High Street.

 

  • * *

 

“Hello, Mr. Dowdy? Are you here?”

Wyll and Cheeryup stepped cautiously into the dim, musty shop of Dowdy Cray, the wagon builder of Thimble Down. All around his workshop were stacks of lumber, beams, and half-made wheels, as well as buckets of iron hardware to bind them all together.

Dowdy worked most days with Bog the Blacksmith, who forged all the metal himself to Dowdy’s exact specifications. Without these two gents, commerce in the village would grind to a halt and merchandise would have to be moved by pony, mule, and on the backs of Halflings themselves. In a very real sense, wagons drove the economy of their world and, as such, Dowdy and Bog were two very busy fellows.

“I’m here, young folks, but I’m up to my elbows in work. I don’t have time to chit-chat.

“We’re sorry, Mr. Dowdy, but we’re just trying to gather the facts of Mr. Dalbo’s death, hoping to find some information that will help Uncle Dorro.”

“I’ve told Sheriff Forgo all I know, as has Bog. Heck, Forgo was right there the whole time, so he knows it all. But it’s funny you’re here,” continued Dowdy. “There is one chap who knows a bit about Dalbo and it’s his wagon I’m a-fixin’ today. You can find him in my back room—he’s been weepin’ and carryin’ on all day.

“Honestly, it’s getting on me nerves!”

 

  • * *

 

Dowdy picked up a hammer and began beating a fore axel into position on a tiny cart filled with pots and pans. Wyll and Cheeryup moved back further into the shop, peering into the back room. There, huddled on a crate and dabbing his eyes, was Minty Pinter, the very Halfling they were seeking. Cheeryup diplomatically coughed as they entered the chamber.

“We’re sorry to disturb you, Mr. Minty. I hope we’re not disturbing you.”

“Ah, young Cheeryup and Master Underfoot—no, you can’t disturb me any more than I am. I’m sorry to hear about young Dorro. It’s a tragedy that goes both ways and, no, I don’t believe he should be rotting in gaol. T’was an accident, that’s all.”

“Thank you, Mr. Minty. I know you were close to Dalbo. Can you tell me anything that could help Mr. Dorro—even the smallest thing?”

Minty Pinter took a deep breath. “Oh, I don’t know. Dalbo was a fine lad and one of me best pals. T’was an important part of our village, more than anyone thinks. I mean, there have always been rumors about him and his strange ways, but—.”

“But what, sir?” asked Wyll.

“But—they’re all true!” Minty had a look of pride in his eyes. “Folks said Dalbo was an odd one, talking to trees and animals and fish like a lunatic. I’ll tell you young people something most don’t know—Dalbo did speak with trees and animals and fish! It was his gift.”

“I don’t understand.”

Cheeryup knew they onto something here.

“I mean to say, young lady, that Dalbo Dall was not a loon who spoke to maple trees and squirrels. I mean to say that he was as much a part of the Great Wood as the Meeting Tree itself. He had deep roots there going back hundreds of years—I think he was older than any of us realized.”

“But Mr. Minty, how can a Halfling live for hundreds of years?” asked the boy.

“That’s a simple one to answer, Wyll—because he weren’t no Halfling! Not at all!” Minty Pinter laughed. “He only looked like one, but I don’t believe it for a second. Dalbo was like a living spirit of the ol’ Great Wood itself. Call me crazy, but I believe that with every bone in me body!”

Cheeryup drove right to the crux of the matter without hesitation. “Then why was he lying on the ground that day and how was he killed if he was some kind of ‘spirit’ as you say?”

Tears welled up in Minty’s eyes again as he remembered the tragic event.

“That’s the problem, lassie! Something went wrong. Something went tragically wrong that day and poor Dalbo was struck by the errant arrow and died. I don’t know how, but he did.”

“I’m sorry for reminding you of it, sir. We both are.” Cheeryup fell silent.

“That’s not the half of it, though.” The tinker stared at both children with the saddest of expressions. “T’was not just poor Dalbo that died that day. No—part of the Great Wood died with him and I’m sure t’was its heart! I’m not sure the old forest can survive without him. I feel it in me bones; the Meeting Tree itself is dying. And when that goes, well, let Minty Pinter be the first to say that the village of Thimble Down will be next!”

At that, the tinker dropped his head and let the tears come freely.

[]Darwinna

Sheriff Forgo was enjoying one of the few respites in his day—breakfast!—a moment that usually began with a visit to the Mrs. Clementine’s bakery a few lanes away. Her clay ovens were lit at four o’clock in the morning and by seven, her cupboards, cooling racks, and window displays were chockablock with delicious scones, buns, seeded loafs, and sweet confections.

Today, the lawmen had picked up a selection of raisin muffins (as raisins were about the only fruit one could get in January), as well as oatcakes and buns, which he planned to slather with fresh butter and strawberry preserves.

The door of the gaol creaked open.

“Hello? Is anyone … oh, hello Sheriff.”

Forgo was in the midst of cramming a large, delicious muffin in his mouth just as Darwinna Thrashrack walked in the door.

“Mmmffff, urrggkkk, (Cough! Gag!) … errrr, hello Dar-winna!”

“Oh dear! Forgo, you’re choking. Here, have some water!” The solicitor quick poured a cup of water from a ewer on his desk and the lawman chugged it down, hacking and wheezing the whole time. “Are you well? I’m sorry if I startled you!”

“It was nothing,” Forgo bluffed, embarrassed, but still trying to recover his dignity. Of course, Darwinna looked absolutely ravishing in a fur-lined green coat and matching hat, offsetting her green eyes and radiant smile. “I was just taking some notes for the case, that’s all.”

Not believing a word of it, the legal doyenne continued, “That’s good to hear, Sheriff. I’d hate it if I caused you injury—why you might sue me!” She laughed at her own joke, while Forgo still basked in her beauty while trying to look nonchalant.

“Are you, errmmm, here to see the prisoner?”

“Of course—how astute of you. The trial is coming up and this recent incident of the escape with Pinchbottle doesn’t help.”

“I swear, Darwinna, the bookmaster was a hostage and had nothing to do with it.”

“I concur, but the magistrate doesn’t agree; he seems hell-bent to punish Dorro, but for the life of me I don’t know why.”

“The Mayor and Dorro have a long history and it ain’t a happy one. Nor with Osgood Thrip—it seems me that the Mayor and Thrip have been waitin’ for something like this for a long time.”

“That is not good news, Forgo. Let me talk to my client and we’ll proceed apace.”

He led Darwinna back into the gaol and showed her to Dorro’s cell; the Sheriff also noticed her scrunching up her nose at the dingy environs; apparently, the cells were far more unpleasant than he’d ever noticed. There was a small side room with a table and chairs, and he motioned for the solicitor to enter while he fetched Dorro from his cell. The bookmaster shuffled in, still looking puffy and sore from his beating at the hands of the Nob constabulary.

“Dorro, I’m so sorry! Poor fellow, come sit by me,” Thrashrack was clearly upset at the sight of her client. “Do you need anything? In that case, we need to plan for your trial.”

She motioned for Forgo to leave them alone and he retreated back to his confections with some relief.

“How bad is it, Darwinna?” Dorro spoke in the voice of one who felt defeated by life.

“I won’t lie to you, friend—the Mayor and that odious Mr. Thrip will use this latest event to tighten the screws even harder. As Grumbleoaf said in our first meeting, this is going to get worse before it gets better. Our road will be a difficult one.”

“What if I simply confess and pay a grand fine? That way we can simply be done with the whole thing.”

Darwinna frowned, yet as Dorro noticed, she was still attractive with a doleful face.

“At this point, I can’t see the Mayor accepting it. He has momentum behind him and will use it to press his advantage. You have a real enemy—and a powerful one at that.”

“It’s my fault entirely, you see.” The Halfling looked positively morose.

“I’ve used my position of respect and wealth in this community to make things better, but often at the expense of the Mayor and his selfish viewpoint. I’ve leveraged these advantages over him, most recently in the establishment of our new school. It’s not common knowledge, but it was something of a grand bargain: Farmer Edythe said she would withdraw from the election if the Mayor created a small tax to fund the institution. He was livid and swore vengeance and now I am reaping the harvest of that decision.”

“Good gracious, Dorro! I had no idea you forced his hand like that—now his actions make all the more sense. You must be respectful of him during the trial. If not, the Mayor will only make your life more miserable.”

The pair heard a new voice coming into the building and bumping into chairs and tables.

“My, my, Sheriff, this gaolhouse of yours is revolting. Have you ever heard of a mop? Disgusting!”

The door to their room opened and in loomed the imposing figure of Tiberius Grumbleoaf.

Closing the door behind him, he continued, “Hello Darwinna, my dear. Is this gaol repellent or is it just me? How do I get some tea around here?”

Grumbleoaf’s apparent eccentricities made Dorro crack a smile; in another situation, he thought Tiberius and he could be friends. The bookmaster already a small cadre of eccentric friends and always sought more.

“Trust me, Mr. Grumbleoaf, but you don’t want any of Forgo’s tea or coffee. It can quite lethal.”

“Duly noted, sir—I thank you for saving my life and saving me from the chore having to sue poor Forgo! Now, to the business at hand.”

Dorro was fascinated that Grumbleoaf seemed immune to the charms of Darwinna Thrashrack. Not only did he refrain from ogling her, he seemed to treat her with almost sisterly comfort, unlike most others in the village.

“How can I help you with the trial, Mr. Grumbleoaf?”

“As the official truth-seeker, I’m neither here to help nor hinder you, Mr. Dorro. As a matter of fact, our esteemed colleague Mr. Shugfoot shall be joining us momentarily to make sure none of our discussions are biased in any direction. Ah, here he is—.”

A dapper gent swept into the small chamber, “Hello all and especially Darwinna—you look stunning today!”

In contrast to Grumbleoaf’s aloofness, Hamment Shugfoot wasted no time in currying favor with the legal lady, cooing over her and offering compliments by the score. Darwinna didn’t seem to mind the attention and gently flirted back.

“Now stop, Hamment—we must work. This is business, so stop behaving like a schoolboy, you fool,” she tittered, tossing back her luxuriant hair.

Grumbleoaf merely groaned and opened his thick, leather-bound book, which he guarded jealously. Pulling a quill out of its spine and a small ink jar from his pocket, he proceeded to start scratching away furiously, writing heaven-knows-what on the volume’s secret vellum pages.

Dorro, for his part, was mildly astonished. Here he was, languishing in a cell, accused of a heinous crime, and surrounded by lawyers who were mooning like young people. It was like an unsettling dream come to life.

“I agree, Hamment—let us work for once,” barked Grumbleoaf. “Now that the counsel for the prosecution and defense are present, we can begin. Mr. Dorro, please tell us your recollection of the events that transpired at the Winter Festival, in excruciating detail pleases. Leave no stone unturned. Keep in mind that whatever you say can be used by Hamment in his defense strategy. The best course is to be as honest and consistent as possible.”

Darwinna reached out and put her hand over Dorro’s, giving it a squeeze. “Tiberius is right—be as honest as you can and tell us everything you remember.”

She gave another squeeze for emphasis and smiled at him in a way that made the gent briefly go weak.

For the next hour and half, Dorro relived that dreadful day, telling the trio everything he recalled. It was painful to relive, but all three solicitors took copious notes and asked blunt, but fair questions.

Finally, all the participants were exhausted and made to leave. Darwinna leaned close to the bookmaster and whispered, “You did very well, Dorro. The evidence that Dalbo’s death was accidental is growing. I wish the Pinchbottle incident hadn’t happened, but there it is and it’s clear you were taken against your will. Fingers crossed, dear Dorro!”

She winked at him and packed up to leave, putting the fur-lined hat and coat on. Again, Hamment began flirting, causing Grumbleoaf to snort and beat a hasty retreat.

Shugfoot laughed: “Oh, just ignore Tiberius. He’s an old crank and doesn’t have a romantic bone in his body. Darwinna knows I’m just kidding—don’t you, dear?—but our friend doesn’t go for that kind of friendly banter. Just wants to scrawl nasty notes in his book; I’d love to have a peek at it, but the old badger keeps it locked and guards it jealously.”

Darwinna smiled at him one more time. “Goodbye, Dorro—I will be in touch soon. And it will all turn out well. I’m very hopeful.” Then she left the chamber.

“Oh yes, Mr. Winderiver, it will turn out fine—just dandy,” laughed Hamment, flashing a shark-like smile as he departed. Yet the bookmaster didn’t feel that Shugfoot’s declaration meant things would turn out well for Dorro.

In fact, quite the opposite.

[]Heartwood

There was stark quiet in Dowdy Cray’s wagon shop and, by this time, it wasn’t Minty alone who was grieving.

Cheeryup was crying along with him and although loath to admit it, Wyll was fairly choked up. Out in the main shop area, the children even heard a loud sob from Dowdy himself, who had been listening in to Minty Pinter’s brave soliloquy about his friend. The wagon builder spent the next few minutes blowing his nose ungraciously into a hanky.

Cheeryup finally stepped up and gave the tiny tinker a hug. “We’re so sorry, Mr. Minty. If there was any way we could bring Dalbo back, we would.”

“Thank you, missy. But now that I think about it, there is,”

“What? Are you saying we can bring Dalbo back and save the Great Wood?” Wyll blurted out.

Minty Pinter seemed lost in thought for a moment. “Maybe I’m imagining this because, truth be told, Dalbo and I spent much of our time together drinking ale and smoking Old Nob, so I’m not sure what I’m remembering, but there’s a kernel of an idea me old braincase.”

Cheeryup was about to burst out of her skin. “What is it, Minty? Tell us!”

“Calm down, young girl, calm down. Let me think on this. I have a strange recollection of Dalbo and me rollin’ down the road on me wagon, drinking from a wine skin and laughin’ it up as usual. But then, he gets all serious and says, ‘Minty, I love ya like a brother. So do me a favor, will ye? If anything should befall ol’ Dalbo, I want ‘chus to remember one thing.’”

More silence. “Mr. Minty, what?”

“Oh yeah, sorry—I got lost in me own thoughts. So Dalbo says, ‘If anything should befall me, find the heartwood of the forest.’ Yep, them’s his very words.”

He fell quiet again. If Cheeryup hadn’t been a lady, one taught to respect her elders, she would have slapped Minty on the head and told him to get on with it. This was important news! “And what does that mean?” she scolded him.

“I haven’t the foggiest, Cheeryup, me girl. Not a clue. But it’s in me brain so it must be true. In fact, I recall Dalbo telling me this more than once. Though for the life ‘o me, I have no idea what the heartwood is.”

Wyll jumped in, “But you think this heartwood of the forest could bring him back?”

“The more I think on it, the more I think it be true. Most of the time, ya see, Dalbo was as silly as I am—we were just a pair of daft larks who pr’aps drink a bit too much and giggled most of the time. But there was another side to Dalbo Dall I witnessed a few times and it was a most peculiar personality.”

“On rare occasions when we’d be campin’ out in the woods and pullin’ on our pipes, the boy would become grave and start talking about the history of the Great Wood, back before the beginning of time. He’d say tosh like, ‘—back when I was a wee acorn.’”

“I’d laugh and he’d shoot me a dirty look, as if I should shut me gob. He’d talk about watching them hills grow and move from here to there, and how tiny streams turned into creeks and then the mighty River Thimble over a few thousand seasons. He remembers when the Deep was a small gully in the earth, until a thousand years of torrential water wore it into the ravine it is today. The water is gone, but the riverbed remains—that’s the Deep.”

“It was absurd stuff, mind ya, and more than likely fueled by whatever fine concoction we were drinking that night—particularly the ol’ honeygrass. But Dalbo seemed quite emphatic about it and wouldn’t brook any of my jokin’ around during these moments.”

“No, it seemed like he was tryin’ to teach me about the Great Wood and all that stuff—about the trees and rocks and critters. Again, probably the ranting of a fellow hopped up on whiskey, but he always told me to remember the heartwood, in case o’ trouble. Whatever the heck that is.”

Minty Pinter grew quiet again and dropped his head. Wyll and Cheeryup were waiting for him to keep going until they heard snores from the tiny Halfling. The tinker was fast asleep, sitting upright on a box.

Dowdy came in from behind and gently lifted Minty, placing him in the back of a wagon that was in his shop for repair; it seemed like this wasn’t the first time he’d done dealt with the unconscious tinker.

The younglings thanked Dowdy and slipped out of the repair shop.

“So what do we do now, Cheery? And how will we ever figure out what the heartwood is?”

“We can certainly ask Mr. Shoe—he can find anything in that library. And we’re due to visit Mr. Dorro anyway. He might have a clue. Let’s go!”

As the two rounded a corner onto the High Street, Wyll grabbed the girl and pulled her behind a barrel. “Shhhh!”

“What did you do that for?” screeched the girl, but Wyll clamped his hand over her mouth and bugged his eyes out.

They heard voices not a few paces away. A few gents were huddled in conversation and Cheeryup suddenly understood why Wyll pulled her aside.

 

  • * *

 

“We’re expecting great things from you, Hamment.” It was the Mayor’s voice.

“No question, this is a big one, Shugfoot.” This was Osgood Thrip speaking. “Win the trial and you can expect good things to come your way. How’s the case coming along?

“Splendidly,” gloated the solicitor. “We met with Winderiver this morning and he told us everything—I have plenty of ammunition to use against him.”

Wyll and Cheeryup couldn’t believe they were hearing the defense lawyer cozying up to the magistrate. They were not well versed in Halfling law, but even two twelve-year-olds knew this was not right.

“What about Thrashrack? She’s good, y’know,” murmured Thrip.

“Don’t I know it, Osgood. Darwinna has a more than capable legal mind and is every inch my equal. But I have a few surprises up my sleeve. She may be brilliant, but I’m cunning and wily. I expect my dear Darwinna to be more than shocked at my cross-examination of the bumbling bookmaster and his witnesses.”

“Excellent, Hamment, excellent!” The Mayor—who also served at the village’s magistrate—was excited. “Now, about that deal we discussed ….”

“Yes, your Honor, about that; I’d be very much interested in your proposition.”

There was silence as the three Halflings craned their necks about to make sure no one was listening. Osgood Thrip spoke next. “So here’s deal, Shugfoot. We want a clear victory in this trial—you can showboat, but don’t go overboard. It has to be a believable and highly decisive victory over Winderiver and your lady friend.”

“Oh dear—Darwinna isn’t my lady friend. At least not yet.”

“I don’t care about that, but you get us a clean conviction and we can get you things you’ve merely dreamed of.”

“You mean like—the Perch?” The solicitor spoke in hushed tones. “I’d sell my own mother to live in Dorro’s burrow. There are few finer homes in all Thimble Down.”

“Don’t move in just yet, but the Mayor and I have mapped out a few scenarios whereby the Perch might fall into your lap and for mere pennies no less. We take care of our friends—do this for us and we can arrange anything.”

The solicitor was verily jumping up and down for joy. “If I move into the Perch, Darwinna wouldn’t be able to resist my proposals anymore. What lady wouldn’t want to live in that grand abode? She’ll take my hand in marriage in a flash and then Darwinna Shugfoot and I can take over the law firm. We’ll oust that buffoon Grumbleoaf and rename it Shugfoot & Shugfoot, Ltd. I like the sound of that!”

“That’s fine, but don’t get too far ahead of yourself,” Thrip growled. “You have a trial to win and it needs to be the best case you’ve ever put together.”

“Don’t worry, Mr. Thrip. This trial will be Hamment Shugfoot’s finest hour. I will bury Dorro Fox Winderiver in own words!”

At that, the Mayor and Osgood Thrip clapped the solicitor on the back and all three ambled away down the High Street laughing.

Wyll and Cheeryup didn’t need to be told twice as to their next move. In a heartbeat, both were up and racing in the other direction, straight for the Thimble Down gaol.

 

  • * *

 

“Mr. Dorro, Mr. Dorro!” The younglings burst into the gaol house to find their friend and tell him the news. “Can we see him?”

“Steady on, young folks. What’s the matter?” Gadget Pinkle was sitting behind the desk, peeling an apple with his knife.

“We need to see Wyll’s uncle. We have important news for him,” blurted the mere wisp of a girl. “The Sheriff should hear this, too. It will break the case wide open!”

“I’m afraid it’s too late for that, little lady.”

“Too late? What’s happened to Uncle Dorro?” Wyll’s eyes bugged out frantically.

“Nothing’s happened, per se, but he ain’t here. The Sheriff and his lawyer lady hustled him out of here twenty minutes ago.”

“Did they set him free? That would be the best news we’ve heard all day.”

Gadget laughed. “Right, they set him free.” He giggled even more. “Sorry, little lass, but Dorro ain’t free. Forgo and Miss Thrashrack just came to fetch him for the big day.”

“Big day? What do you mean, Gadget?” plead Wyll.

“Why, the big day. The trial. It’s happening right now. Yer uncle is in the dock by now. Har!”

The deputy laughed to himself as he ate the apple. Wyll and Cheeryup looked at him murderously, yet they had no time to deal with Gadget’s insensitive comments.

Instead, they sped out of the gaol and towards the site of the trial across town—the Hanging Stoat.

[]The Trial

By the time Wyll and Cheeryup reached the tavern, it was already filled to capacity with villagers, all hoping to see the titillating event.

The Hanging Stoat was the obvious venue for the trial since it was perhaps the largest indoor space in all Thimble Down, a sizable freestanding structure which made it unique. Inside, Halflings were jostling for good seats, hooting to friends, and ordering hard cider by the pint (they didn’t normally drink this early in the day, but considering the festive atmosphere, a tipple was more than socially acceptable).

Despite the fact that his friend was on trial, Mr. Mungo still had a business to run and was making a small fortune on mugs of cider, ale, mulled wine, and hot brandies.

“Call to order! Call to order!” The Mayor—here in his role as chief magistrate—banged a gavel on an elevated table in the back of the tavern. “Quiet down!”

Not surprisingly, the villagers kept yakking and gossiping about the trial and goings-on in Thimble Down. Finally a more compelling figure rose next to the magistrate’s table.

“Hey, you lot! Shut the hell up!”

The room quieted down, as no one dared question Sheriff Forgo. His commanding bellow could be heard a quarter-mile away and it was backed up with the good faith of his two mighty fists, which as everyone knew he wasn’t afraid to use.

“That’s better,” rasped the Mayor, picking up his notes. He began to read.

“Today, we are holding for trial the personage of Mr. Dorro Fox Winderiver, resident of Thimble Down and its bookmaster. He is charged with the unlawful murder of Dalbo Dall, an itinerant who lived in the area of no fixed address. It is alleged that on January the seventh, Mr. Winderiver shot at arrow during the Winter Festival, one that sailed into the woods and struck the recumbent body of Mr. Dall, causing his immediate cessation of life. Whether or not this was intentional is something we will discuss today. Any questions so far?”

“Your Honor, I think we can safely say that the death of Mr. Dall was accidental, as Mr. Dorro could have had no idea where his arrow landed,” motioned Darwinna Thrashrack, stunning in a gem-blue frock with a few matching feathers in her carefully coifed hair.

She added, “I don’t see how Dorro could have intentionally shot an arrow one hundred yards into a thicket of trees and hit a target he couldn’t see.”

“Overruled, counselor,” snarled the Mayor. “We still haven’t determined if Dorro knew Dalbo was there or not.” Darwinna sat down with a look of clear irritation on her face. “We will hear testimony from both sides and then the Truth-Finder—today, it will be Mr. Tiberius Grumbleoaf of the firm Shugfoot, Thrashrack & Grumbleoaf—will make his recommendation. For the prosecution, Hamment Shugfoot will commence oral arguments. Finally, myself—as the magistrate of Thimble Down—shall make the final, binding decision. Are we clear? Let us proceed.”

At that, the grand figure of Mr. Hamment Shugfoot, Esq. approached the Mayor’s desk. Hamment was all decked out in a fine, horse-hair jacket with silk vest, crisp, white cotton shirt underneath, and matching knee breeches. His brown leather shoes were well buffed and sported gleaming silver buckles. The solicitor also wore bold green stockings that ran up his calf, and his hair and thin mustache had been recently been massaged with a scented lavender oil. Hamment fairly oozed power.

“Thank you, Your Honor. Let us not mince words here—in the course of my discourse, I shall prove conclusively that Dorro Fox Winderiver not only caused the death of Dalbo Dall, but it was willful murder!” (There were gasps from the crowd at Hamment’s dramatic pronunciation, the exact reaction the solicitor had hoped for.)

Now pointing directly at the bookmaster who was sitting sheepishly next to Darwinna, Shugfoot went for the jugular. “There is our murderer, ladies and gentlings! There is our villain! Even if Dalbo’s death was not intentional, it was still caused by gross incompetence, and he should be punished in the most severe manner.”

There are few shouts from the excited crowd, such “Hear, hear!” and “Dorro stinks!” The poor bookmaster was positively shrinking into himself, such was his shame and fear. Sadly for him, Hamment was just getting started.

For the next half hour, the wily lawyer recited Dorro’s own words about the incident, but carefully twisting each statement out of context to make the defendant seem like a careless and dangerous buffoon. He then called Dowdy Cray, Minty Pinter, Mr. Timmo, and Bog the Blacksmith to the stand, all of whom told the same story, though yet again, Hamment was able to insinuate each time that the errant arrow was caused by the bookmaster’s callow regard for the lives of his fellow Thimble Downers.”

“The villagers gasped throughout the presentation of this damning evidence, that is, when they weren’t ordering more hard cider, brandy, and tea to slake their prodigious thirsts. Wyll and Cheeryup stood in the back with Mr. Timmo and Bedminster Shoe, all of them aghast at what was going on.

Finally, the prosecutor took his seat, much to Dorro’s relief, and the elegant form of Darwinna Thrashrack rose to the front, her face one of beauty and ferocity.

“Thank you, your Honor, for hearing our testimony today. As we have just heard from my esteemed colleague, Mr. Shugfoot, I must inform you that most of what we’ve just heard is pure balderdash—with ample amounts of poppycock and codswallop on top. It was then gently seasoned with innuendo and sprinkled liberally with several tablespoons of lying and tomfoolery!” The crowd went wild at Darwinna’s aggressive counterattack.

Thrashrack recalled all the same witnesses to the stand, this time getting them all to admit that Dorro didn’t even want to participate in this the archery events. Her coup-de-grâce was bringing up Sheriff Forgo and putting him in the dock, basically a bench inside a hastily-constructed wooden box that seemed mildly official looking.

“So Sheriff, we know that you are Dorro Fox Winderiver’s friend, but also the official constable of Thimble Down. As such, I’m sure you understand that your answers must be completely honest and unbiased.”

“I do, m’lady,” said Forgo quietly.

“Fine. We’ve heard enough about what happened that day, but I want to know from you, Sheriff Forgo, sworn protector of our village, if you think Mr. Dorro callously shot the arrow that killed Dalbo Dall.”

“No! Not in a million years! We all pressured him to shoot and kept eggin’ him on until he unloosed the bow string. It’s as much the fault of Dowdy, Bog, Minty and me’self, as it was Winderiver’s. As the voice of the law in Thimble Down for twenty years, we’ve had many accidental deaths and the worst penalty has been a large fine or restitution to the family. I’ve never seen such a simple, open-and-shut case pushed the extreme of a full trial before, no sirree!”

“And you say that, Forgo, in your role at the Sheriff, not in any way related to your comradeship with the defendant.”

Forgo looked like he was about to blow his top.

“Your ladyship, I would never do that on the stand! Never, ever, never! We’ve had all our criminal cases documented by Mr. Bedminster Shoe and anyone in the village can go read the transcripts at the library. All the accidental deaths were met with fines and, in this very courtroom, even Mr. Shugfoot implied that Dalbo’s death was just an archery contest gone wrong. And we all heard it!”

By this time, the gawkers in the audience went crazy, jumping up and down and shouting out words of encouragement, from “Free Dorro! Free Dorro!” to “Shugfoot stinks!” Dorro, too, was deeply moved by the Sheriff’s words and choked up a little, while the Mayor smacked his gavel a few times to restore order.

“That’s enough of that, you ninnies. Hamment, you may bring up your next witness.”

“Thank you, your Honor. I call Farmer Edythe!”

There was a hushed roar in the Hanging Stoat, as no one expected Mungo’s wife to be called—none more surprised than the lady herself.

“Are you sure you want me, Shugfoot?” asked the burly, red-haired lady as she pushed through the tangle of tables and chairs. Her husband stood mutely behind the bar, not knowing what to do, but looking forlornly at his wife.

“Yes, Farmer Edythe, you are precisely who I want to question,” noted Hamment, a glint in his eye. Behind him, Darwinna Thrashrack squinted at the lawyer, knowing he was about to pull a fast one. She put her hand on Dorro’s arm and gave it a squeeze. Both of them knew this wouldn’t be good.

With the witness in the dock, Hamment launched in gently. “So Edythe, you’re a well-known personage in Thimble Down, aren’t you?”

“Reasonably so. I ran for Mayor, as you well know, so I figure some folks must know me!” There was nervous giggling in the crowd.

“And you are a voice for progressive notions in the village—so much so that you might have won the Mayoral contest if you hadn’t pulled out. I’ll go on to say that you are extremely well liked and trusted in our village, correct?”

Edythe blushed a little at the flattery and nodded. “Ummm … sure, Hamment. What’s your point?”

“The point, dear lady, is that you are a creditable personage in Thimble Down. You word is valued and you don’t make things up,” cooed the attorney.

“I wouldn’t ever lie to the good folks of our little hamlet.” There was scattered clapping in the audience, along with the odd “Huzzah for Edythe!” and “The Mayor still stinks!”

The Mayor just scowled at them, knowing full well how unpopular he was.

“Then I put this to you, Farmer Edythe,” said Hamment. “We’ve heard all kinds of people today say what an upstanding fellow Dorro Fox Winderiver is. But I say he’s a reckless danger to all and his carelessness led directly to the death of Dalbo Dall!”

“I think it was an accident!” replied the big lady, getting her dander up.

“Oh yes, Edythe? In that case, what transpired not fifteen minutes before Dorro loosed the arrow that killed Dalbo. Something happened at the table where Mr. Mungo was selling ale at the Festival. What happened? You must tell us!”

Flustered and caught off guard, Edythe tried to get her bearings.

“Well sir, you are correct—there was an incident. Mungo ‘n’ me were selling our beers and ales when a hatchet came flying through the air outta nowhere. Fortunately no one was hurt, but the axe landed in one of my Mungo Poo-kins’ ale casks and split it wide open.”

The crowd was a mix of gasps and giggles, one that the thought of the flying weapon and the other at Edythe’s use of the dreaded Mungo Poo’kins, a pet name that always made the barman blush.

“Suffice to say, we lost a lot of pennies over that spilt ale, though we got compensation later.”

Hamment moved in for the kill. “Yes, you were compensated by the gent who threw the hatchet so recklessly, endangering so many lives. And can you point to the one who threw it? Is that person in the courtroom today, Edythe.”

“Well, errmmm, yes, I do know who threw it.”

She stumbled over the words. Lifting her arm and extending a finger, she pointed to a fellow who hadn’t said anything all day.

“It was him—Dorro Fox Winderiver!”

[]Decree of the Truth Finder

The Hanging Stoat exploded into a frenzy, with Halflings throwing their cider mugs in the air, shouting “Murder!” and generally creating havoc. The Mayor banged his gavel for a full five minutes before Sheriff Forgo told the folks to shut up and be quiet.

“Order! Order in the Court!” the Mayor yelled fruitlessly.

Farmer Edythe stood and left the dock, just beginning to realize how she’d been tricked into accusing Dorro of violent recklessness. She couldn’t even look the bookmaster in the eyes as she passed. As for Dorro himself, he was morose and couldn’t believe the circus exploding around him—he didn’t think he was a criminal, but based on what he’d just heard, even he wasn’t so certain anymore.

“Will the solicitors please approach the bench.” The Mayor’s voice was grim and solemn—he may have been a terrible leader, but he knew the value of theatricality and drama, and milked the moment for all it’s worth.

Hamment and Darwinna approached along with Tiberius Grumbleoaf, the appointed Truth Finder who spent most of the trial writing in the enormous leather-bound book that never left his hands. Softly, the magistrate spoke.

“I get the sense the trial is nearing its natural conclusion, unless of course, you want to bring Dorro to the stand, Solicitor Thrashrack.”

The attorney shot a side glance at Shugfoot. “I will not bring Mr. Winderiver to the stand; I can only imagine how my esteemed colleague would savage him. He’s done enough damage.”

“Oh Darwinna, it’s just my job,” leered Hamment. “You know I didn’t enjoy it.”

She was unmoved. “You seemed to revel in every second. But again, your Honor, my answer is no. We shall present no more witnesses.”

“In that case, I shall allow each of you to make brief closing statements and then let our esteemed Truth Finder make his recommendation. Agreed?”

Grumbleoaf merely grunted as they returned to their seats. For the next twenty minutes, Darwinna Thrashrack and Hamment Shugfoot each presented their best cases for and against the defendant, but there were no more bombshells. As Darwinna had noted, her colleague had already done enough damage. For his part, Dorro said nothing and barely looked up from the desk, while Wyll and Cheeryup remained in the back, frozen in fear.

“All parties now take their seats,” exhorted the Mayor at its conclusion. “At this point in the proceedings, we shall ask our Truth Finder if he’s ready to make a recommendation to the court as to the guilt or innocence of Mr. Winderiver. Will the esteemed Mr. Grumbleoaf come forward?”

With his customary grunt of exertion, the big Halfling rose and stepped forward. On his squat nose sat a pair of reading spectacles with which he used to read from his massive volume. His voice deep and resonant, Tiberius began. There was not a peep in the entire courtroom.

“Good afternoon and thank you, your Honor, for upholding the laws and methods of the Halfling realm in your court. We should all be proud of our unique system of law and the order it brings to our world. You may not know it, the laws of our kingdom help keep the peace from the wider world of chaos and you should appreciate that fact every day. As someone for whom the law is their lifeblood, I admire its machinations and positive results on our society.”

“That brings me to the case at hand, The Village of Thimble Down vs. Mr. Dorro Fox Winderiver, for the charge of willful murder. I have been appointed as the Truth Finder to impartially weigh the evidence and make a strong recommendation to our magistrate, who is none other than the Mayor. I have been watching this case for weeks and taking copious notes. And I have been forming opinions that I will share now. I will commend both solicitors for their cases, but ultimately I must make a decision. My word as a Truth Finder, despite the strong insinuations of Mr. Hamment Shugfoot, is that one Dorro Fox Winderiver is not guilty of willful, premeditated murder.”

The entire chamber at the Hanging Stoat gasped. Darwinna put her arm around Dorro and squeezed him hopefully.

“However, there was a death in this matter and it must be dealt with,” Grumbleoaf proceeded. “I have researched other cases along these lines and found very clear guidelines as to make my Truth be known to the court.”

“To that end, I recommend to the magistrate that Mr. Dorro is guilty of the following act, established in 1543: Non-Dastardly Murder without Intent, but Obviously a Certain Amount of Mutton-Headed Foolishness. This verdict has been used many times in Halfling courts in the past two-hundred and eighty years and quite successfully, too.”

Grumbleoaf pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose loudly.

“For those of you not versed in the law, which is found in the Codex Borgonian—the veritable bedrock of Halfling law—this means that the death of Dalbo Dall was a simple accident and should be sentenced more as a civil liability than a true crime. Thus, by the laws of Thimble Down, the defendant should be exiled for one year or pay a goodly fine. As historical precedent, I can safely report the fine was paid in one-hundred percent of verdicts and, in my opinion, more than covers the accidental death of Dalbo Dall. A nice stiff penalty of, say, twenty gold pieces, I should think, and then Mr. Dorro—who has done so much for this village and is a goodly soul in general—can put this behind him and move forward. Your Honor, that is the decree of the Truth Finder.”

Tiberius Grumble shut his giant book shut and ambled off to his seat. Neither Hamment Shugfoot nor Darwinna Thrashrack looked entirely pleased, as neither got entirely what they wanted. Yet it was clear to all that Grumbleoaf made a fair recommendation and no one would argue with it strenuously.

“Are there any other comments from the solicitors?” asked the Mayor, who wasn’t particularly satisfied either.

Slowly a figure rose from his seat and addressed the entire room.

“I would like to let everyone know how sorry I am. I really didn’t mean to hurt poor Dalbo. He was my friend.” Dorro looked like a beaten Halfling and had never been this low in his life. Throughout the room, tears were flowing amongst his friends, from the children to Mungo to Timmo to Nurse Pym. Forgo was simple mute with sadness. “I promise I will pay whatever fine you levy upon me, your Honor, and then do my best to be a good citizen again. And again—I am so sorry.”

The bookmaster sat back down in the silent courtroom and hush reigned throughout.

Crack!

“I must say, Mr. Winderiver, that we accept your apology,” continued the Mayor icily, setting the gavel down. “But you display a bit of cheek, offering to pay the fine without my final ruling. A bit of cheek, indeed!”

“Your Honor?” said Darwinna rising to her feet. “I second the motion of the Truth Finder. Dorro’s mistake has been well documented and a fine will allow him to, as Mr. Grumbleoaf said, put this all behind him.”

“I object!” Hamment Shugfoot shot to his feet and looked equally impassioned. “A fine of twenty gold coins might be applicable in normal circumstances, but Mr. Winderiver is a fellow of means and that amount is a mere trifling to him. Such a ruling would send the message that wealthy Thimble Downers can simply buy their way out of the law, while to an ordinary citizen, that amount would be crippling.”

The crowd rusted and groaned. They liked what Shugfoot was implying—the thought of the richest ones getting pinched harder was definitely appealing.

“But Dorro has given us the use of his library for free, as well as a school and other improvements to the village. Doesn’t that count for anything?” plead Darwinna.

Smack! The Mayor cracked his gavel again.

“That’s quite enough from both of you! I have made up my mind, based on all of the information you have proffered. And thus I impose this sentence on Mr. Winderiver. You will pay a fine of one hundred gold pieces.”

There were cries and gasps throughout the room.

“And that is not all, Winderiver,” said the Mayor. “You must also cede control of the library to a board of villagers selected by myself, or you shall be exiled to the prison colony of Fog Vale on the eastern frontier—for a period of one year. What say you?”

Along with everyone else in the room, Dorro was shocked. Dumbfounded even. Yet the bookmaster slowly stood up again. Darwinna looked at him imploringly, while Shugfoot gloated from the adjoining table. “Give up my library? Your Honor, this has been my family’s gift to the village of Thimble Down for generations. There is no way that I could do that in good conscience.”

“Moreover, a penalty of one hundred gold pieces would cripple me financially and leave nothing for my nephew. Why, I’d have to sell the Perch and move to a small burrow in Fell’s Corner.”

“You must do this, Winderiver! It’s really your own choice,” glowered the Mayor, his revenge was nearly complete. Off to the side, Osgood Thrip was relishing this triumph over the ever-vexing Dorro Fox Winderiver.

But something else entirely happened.

“Actually, you are wrong, your Honor,” said Dorro in a bolder, louder voice, his confidence growing by the second.

“I do have a choice and I would never forfeit my fortune, my library, or my home to your clutches. Nay, you shall never have them! Instead I, Dorro Fox Winderiver, hereby accept the punishment—that of one year’s exile to the East. And if I survive, I will return to this village and once again, you will find me to as your sworn enemy and foe. I accept your verdict with all my heart. And to all my friends, I will be back!”

The Halflings of Thimble Down could not be contained any more. They leapt from their seats, hundreds of them off, yelling and crying, stomping and laughing, and throwing any object they could find. Someone threw a pewter mug in the air and hit the Mayor square on the nose, making him to howl in pain and cause an enormous bruise (no one ever found out who heaved the cup, but some thought the culprit looked suspiciously like Mr. Timmo).

No matter how loud he roared, Forgo could not quell the rabble and, once the Hanging Stoat’s door was wrenched open, they spilled out onto the lanes of the village, like a dam bursting and releasing a torrent of angry flood waters.

Dorro, of course, dealt with the moment in the time-honored Winderiver manner. He rolled up his eyes and fainted dead away.

[]Goodbyes All Around

“I suppose that takes care of that.”

He snapped the lid of a rarely used leather valise shut and sighed. Dorro was puttering around the Perch, packing a few pieces of warm clothing, a pipe and a small supply of Old Nob, thick knee socks, and a pair of handmade walking shoes, crafted by Filbert & Co. on Winsome Lane not far from the library.

He didn’t know exactly what to expect in Fog Vale, but assumed it wouldn’t be a holiday—he expected a grueling, inhospitable environment.

A year on the eastern frontier. Oh dear. How did you get yourself into this one, Dorro?

He continued muttering to himself, trying to put on a brave face; inside, the bookmaster was terrified. The Mayor and Osgood Thrip had craftily railroaded him into either a choice between poverty or exile and, with his opting for the latter, were enjoying every second of his misery. Yet Dorro didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of seeing him suffer, hence the false bravado.

Elsewhere in the burrow, Wyll, Cheeryup, Bedminster Shoe and Mr. Timmo, along with Forgo and Darwinna Thrashrack, sat in the kitchen, nibbling on their lunches but not enjoying a bit of it. Dorro had wanted one last meal together, but it was a morose affair and after a while, he excused himself to finish packing. He couldn’t put off the inevitable.

“That’s all done, everyone—I’ll be ready to go in a minute.” There were heaves of sadness around the room, but few words.

“Let’s go over the plan one more time, eh? Darwinna, you will be kept on retainer during my absence and serve as administrator of my estate. Forgo, you will witness this action and keep an eye on things. Mr. Timmo, you will be the legal guardian of Wyll for the next year and take up residence here. You too will be kept on a generous allowance to be paid out by Darwinna.”

“And lastly, Bedminster, you have the onerous task of running both the library and school—a big task, but I know you can do it.” The scribe smiled weakly, but nodded in agreement.

“If all goes well, I’ll be home next January and we can all start again. And in case of my untimely demise, Darwinna has my final will and testament, and will act accordingly. It’s all pretty straightforward. Any questions?”

“I don’t want you to go, Uncle Dorro!” cried Wyll, the tears already building in his eyes. “It’s not fair!”

“Fair or not, it’s the law, young man,” smiled Dorro. “Without laws, we’d still be primitive beasts hiding in mud holes, not civilized Halflings with an eye towards the future. In any case, children, I’ll be home before you can say ‘Bob’s yer uncle!’”

“We’ll get you home before January, Mr. Dorro,” added Cheeryup. “Wyll and I are already on the job and we will exonerate you, I promise.”

Dorro laughed and gave her gentle pat on the shoulders. “I wish that were true, but even our esteemed solicitor has been hoodwinked by the Mayor. I just hope that my case will help us Thimble Downers rewrite the laws, so that the magistrate doesn’t have so much power in sentencing.”

Bedminster Shoe jumped in, “Indeed, Mr. Dorro. I did quite a bit of research in recent weeks and have found numerous examples of other cultures’ criminal punishments. The dwarfs, as you know, merely put their guilty prisoners in leather bags and beat them with rocks and sticks—savages, I know.”

“Get to the point, Shoe!” snarled the impatient Sheriff.

“Don’t get testy, Forgo. In any case, yes, there are other methods that yield excellent results. Men-folk, in fact, use a device known as a ‘jury’—an assemblage of peers from a town or village—to decide on guilt or innocence. That seems rather wise to me, despite the fact they’re Men and not civilized like us.”

“After Dorro’s verdict, Bedminster, I’m not so sure how civil we really are,” murmured Timmo who hadn’t said much all day. “Still, Dorro, you can count on us to keep your nephew, home, and library in good shape.”

There were nods all around the table—the bookmaster suddenly realized what good friends he had.

“And if the Mayor or Thrip try to pull any nonsense while I’m gone, they’re going to meet my five little friends.” Sheriff Forgo smirked and held up one of his boulder-sized fists. “I’ve punched that rat of a Mayor in the face before and, y’know, I’d rather enjoy doing it again!”

There were half-hearted laughs around the room until Forgo stood up and everyone knew it was time. “Let’s make this fast, everyone—I don’t want to get my scarf wet with tears.”

Dorro hastily worked his way around the table, giving everyone a hug or a firm handshake. He saved his biggest and best squeezes for Wyll and Cheeryup, who cried enough for everyone, but said nothing. “That should do it, then. Ta to you all, and I’ll be back before you know it!”

Without looking back, he stepped through the doorway and was gone.

[]The Long Ride

Sheriff Forgo planned to get Dorro and Amos Pinchbottle out of Thimble Down without much fanfare. Instead of parading through the center of town, he made the two lie in a dogcart covered with a musty tarp. Forgo took a longer route, using several meandering cow paths that led to the Old Nob Road and headed to the South and East.

The bookmaster wasn’t pleased with the smelly tarp or being shackled to a hard wagon bed, but it was better than riding down the High Street to the jeers, hoots, and stares of his fellow villagers. It would be worse to run into the Mayor or Osgood Thrip and be on the receiving end of their smug glances.

Unless we actually ran them over, thought Dorro wistfully.

Once Forgo pulled off the main road and onto a path, he motioned for Deputy Gadget to remove the cover, allowing the prisoners to sit up. It was chilly, but the wind had dropped and the sun shone between high clouds on this otherwise calm Winter afternoon. Dorro was trying to keep a positive attitude, but knew he was really in some sort of shock; at some point, the full weight of his present condition would reveal itself and bring forth a cloud of depression. Almost in defiance, he tried to enjoy the sight of snowy pastures, graceful hedgerows with cardinals, sparrows, and finches flitting in and out and in the distance, a procession of rolling, pale blue hills marching towards the south.

“Sheriff, I never asked before, but how are Amos and I getting to the eastern frontier? It must be over a hundred miles away. I don’t assume you’re taking us the whole way.”

“That, I am not. No, we’re making for the great crossroads between Thimble Down and Nob and, for that matter, we ain’t the only ones. This day is marked on all our calendars as a mighty important one.”

“It’s the day of the Long Ride, when all exiled prisoners from all the Halfling villages are transported to Fog Vale. We meet at the crossroads where a few bounty hunters take the gang to their final destination. T’ain’t a happy day, that’s for sure.”

“I’ve lived in Thimble Down my whole life—yet never heard of the Long Ride.”

“Oh, I ‘eard of the Long Ride many a-time,” laughed Amos Pinchbottle. “But then again, my type would!”

“It’s not something we boast about,” said Forgo, ignoring Amos. “No one likes talking about prisoners or, to be sure, our penal camps. The Mayor has always told me to keep it quiet, and so have other mayors in Nob, Upper-Down, and the like. We’re comin’ up on the crossroads right now, so pipe down.”

Dorro craned his head left and caught a glimpse of ponies, riders, and wagons ahead. It didn’t look like a happy assemblage and at last the bookmaster felt a shiver of what was about to befall him. Soon enough, they’d arrived and, as he’d thought, this group was not a festive one. The faces on these Halflings were grim; the ones on ponies, Dorro assumed, were the local constabulary, while each wagon carried a prisoner or two, all looking sullen. Except for two.

“H’ullo cousin of ours! How ye be?” Dorro spied two prisoners grinning and waving in their direction.

“Thar be Woodsy and Barker!” gigged Amos, who seemed to be having a grand time, as if he were about to go on a jaunt to the seaside. Dorro assumed he’d been on this side of the law many times before and wasn’t as troubled as the bookmaster; he could learn something from the fellow, perhaps. “Sheriff! Can I sit with me cousins on the road goin’ East? We got some catchin’ up to do!”

“Shut it, Pinchbottle! You’ll sit where they put you in, you damnable fool.”

The scoundrel jutted out his bottom lip as if he were merely a tyke who’d been cuffed on bottom, instead of a full-grown Halfling with a healthy criminal past. The more this circus carried on, the more amazed Dorro became.

“Good day, Sheriff Forgo—glad you’re on time.” A beefy lawman rode up on his brown-and-white bog pony. “You have two for our little party, correct?”

“That’s right, McGinty. I think you know one of our guests—Mr. Pinchbottle.”

“Indeed I do, Forgo. I recognize that other one, too, but don’t know his name. Don’t really matter—they’re all going on the Long Ride and deservedly so.”

Forgo and Gadget leapt from the dogcart and began the process of transferring the prisoners. He didn’t look Dorro in the eyes much; clearly, this was painful for him and felt no uncertain amount of guilt. In any other situation, the Sheriff would have defended his friend to the death, but as they both knew, the law was incontrovertible.

The various sheriffs and constables discussed protocols while deputies moved prisoners a large covered wagon drawn by stout mules. Each prisoner was pushed onboard, chained to a bench, and given a dirty cushion to sit or sleep on, however they saw fit.

It was at this moment that reality began to set in for Dorro and, as he was locked into his manacles, he dropped his head in profound sadness. The moment of reckoning came as Constable McGinty rode up and spoke to the prisoners through the back of the wagon.

“Listen up, you scofflaws! You’re about to go on a journey and, for most of you, it will be the most unfortunate one of your life. The Eastern frontier is the destination, more specifically a colony called Fog Vale where you will wait out the remainder of your terms. The Vale is something a pleasure resort … without the pleasure. You could even say it’s yer last resort!”

The lawman laughed cruelly at the pun, probably the same one he delivered every year. “You will live and work in Fog Vale as hard as you ever have in your life; laziness will be met with the lash and hard work will be rewarded with extra food and privileges. I suggest you pursue the latter.”

“This work camp is in a deep, secluded valley, surrounded by mountains and hazardous terrain, but don’t even think of escaping. If you think you’re tough enough to try, no one will stop you, as there ain’t no chains or cells in the colony. That’s because the surrounding hills are teeming with goblins and other fell beasts, some of which we don’t even have names for yet. If you escape and are captured by the orkus, you’d best hope for a quick death. Har!”

Constable McGinty loved his work. He had a solid reputation, but still felt a little sadistic glee when describing the prison camp. Dorro disliked McGinty instantly.

“I want to introduce you to your hosts for this fine journey: Bullock, Salty, and Hammersmith.” Three nasty looking Halflings stepped into the prisoners’ line of vision and they couldn’t have been any coarser.

“These fellers will be your guardians for the entire journey. They are experienced bounty hunters and guards, both rounding up criminals or occasionally taking a little silver to deliver you rogues to the Vale.”

“Although they look as sweet as spring lambs, I assure you they not. Mess with them at your own peril; they are permitted to you whatever means they like in subduing unruly passengers, and that includes mortal force. I really don’t care if they beat you or slap you or kill you. I just want you out of our fair villages. If you come back in a year or two, I’ll expect you to be gentler, fairer folk, less prone to giving us trouble.

McGinty paused to pull a briar pipe out of his jacket, lighting it the cold January air and taking a puff or two.

“That said, not many do come back. Some move on to other Halfling settlements, while others, strangely enough actually prefer the freedom out there and start their own frontier colonies. And a fair number have the good manners to die and save us the problem of having to arrest ‘em again in the future. If you do die, I can assure you that myself, nor any of my colleagues, will miss you. With that, I bid you good day, gentlemen—and you too, ladies” (for indeed, there were two or three female criminals in their wagon).

There was a crack of a whip and the snorting of animals. The wagon lurched and began wobbly down the snowy track towards the east. Dorro was frozen in his seat, unable to comprehend what was really going on; he lifted his head and peered out the back flap of the wagon. In the growing distance, he saw Sheriff Forgo standing alone on the crossroads, his pony Tom nudging him for a bucket of oats.

The bookmaster knew he was beyond all help.

[]Rotten Cabbage and Beets

For the next hour, the only sounds heard within the Perch were those of Wyll and Cheeryup sobbing. Both had fled to empty bedrooms in the rear and flung themselves on the covers, sobbing piteously while Timmo and Bedminster Shoe ironed out details of running Dorro’s house and library in his absence.

Wyll eventually tired of weeping and decided to see where his friend was. She was in the spare bedroom, looking at the ceiling blankly. “What you doin’?” he asked.

“Same as you, silly. Being angry, sad, and bored.”

“We can’t just sit here and be miserable. Let’s do something.”

“I think you’re right, Wyll. I probably should say that more often, but you are right most of the time.”

Wyll stood a little taller as Cheeryup didn’t hand out compliments very often; only when she really meant it. It wasn’t always easy having an astonishingly intelligent friend, so when she said something nice about him, it felt wonderful. “So what do you want to do—find Minty?”

“Bang on, Wyll! That’s exactly the right move. The only question is where we’d find him at this time of day. He could be anywhere,” said the yellow-haired slip of a girl, tying up her worn leather boots. “But we’ll never find him sitting here—let’s go!”

They bolted for the front door, only to be halted by Mr. Timmo. “Let’s start on the right foot, children. If I’m going to be Wyll’s guardian, I need to know where you’re trekking to and with whom. So where are you off to, hmmm?”

“We’re off to find clues to help spring Mr. Dorro,” blurted Wyll.

Cheeryup rolled her eyes. “We’ve launched an inquiry of our own and think it may pay dividends soon. We’re off to interview our primary subject, a certain Mr. Pinter. We think he has valuable information about Dalbo.”

“Minty?” jested Timmo, with Bedminster Shoe behind him. “He’s probably halfway through a bottle of honeygrass by now, but certainly, anything to help Mr. Dorro.”

“We just don’t know where he is. Mr. Minty could be anywhere in the village.”

“I can help you here, lad. He’s in the library,” noted the scribe. “The place is closed today, but he begged if he could go do some mysterious ‘research.’ Seriously, Minty Pinter doing research—can you imagine? It’s almost comical, but he seemed desperate, so gave him my key. You’ll find him there.”

“Thank you, Mr. Shoe!” Cheeryup shocked the staid Halfling by giving him a hug and running out the door, followed by her friend.

“My word!” sniffed a flustered Bedminster. “Have you ever?”

 

  • * *

 

The wagon churned along the track, a slow and arduous ride made all the more so with lumps of snow and ice on the roads, paths, and tracks.

Craning his neck, Dorro could grab brief glimpses of what lay ahead in between the bottoms of bounty hunters sitting in front. It had been hours already and he estimated they’d covered about twelve or fifteen miles since leaving the Old Nob crossroad.

In the distance, he could espy burrows, which told him they were approaching a settlement, but it was none that he knew of. Further east of Thimble Down, the hamlets were few and far between; some of them didn’t even have names. He figured this must be one.

True to form, a few villagers stepped out of their burrows to see what was going on. They mustn’t get many visitors, thought Dorro. It must be exciting for these simple farmers.

He was half right, as this was exciting for the denizens of this poor community.

Unbeknownst to him, they full-well knew it was the wagon full of scofflaws that came through once a year and they were ready. Once the wagon entered the raw, muddy track, the Halflings and their young ran behind the wagon, hurling rotten vegetables at the criminals and taunting them with insults.

“Watch out for the goblins, ye filthy beggars!” laughed one.

“Hope you don’t mind maggots and fleas in yer beds!” jeered another

“Here, have another helping of delicious veggies!”

This last comment was accompanied by chunks of flying debris, including rotten cabbage and beets that rained upon Dorro and his unfortunate companions. For him, it was disgusting and horrifying, yet he spied Amos Pinchbottle and his cousins, who seemed to regard it as a game and were throwing pieces of cabbage back at the crude, nasty Halflings.

“Take that, scummy vermin!” he laughed, along with Woodsy and Barker. To them, this was all some sort of perverse amusement far outside of Dorro’s understanding. He was cold, dirty, and miserable.

Before long, they’d left the squalid village behind and headed into thick, piney woods leading ever eastward. The prisoners were picking rotten veg flesh off their clothes and benches, and trying to throw them out of the cart. Up front, Bullock, Salty, and Hammersmith merely howled with laugher at the state of their captives.

“You lot look absolutely beau-tee-full!” croaked the bald, chubby Salty, while the big, thick-necked Bullock croaked, “And you’s smell sweet, too!”

“You mugs are ready for a country dance, you is,” chortled Hammersmith, the biggest and nastiest-looking bounty hunter.

He had a scarred-up gash on the top of his lumpen head and Dorro was sure it wasn’t there by accident. This brute had the scent of violence all over him and, accordingly, the bookmaster planned to avoid Mr. Hammersmith at all costs.

He was also fascinated by two she-Halflings who sat across the wagon from him. These prisoners kept whispering and tittering away to themselves, as if they were cooking something up. One of them saw the bookmaster looking their way.

“What’s you lookin’ at, sweety? Do you fancy one of us?” cackled the one toothless lady.

“Or maybe, Esmerelda, he fancies us both!” At that, both hags chortled even more, until Bullock turned out and told them all pipe down.

Lowering her voice, the one called Esmerelda whispered back, “You wondering what we’re talkin’ ‘bout, eh? You must be bored.”

“That I am, my good lady. I’m sorry if I appear to be eavesdropping.”

“Ooo, you can drop yer eaves wherever you’s wants, love,” smiled Mary, revealing rotten, brown stumps of teeth. “What brings you here on our little jaunt?” She gave him another flirty grin.

Dorro had never thought about discussing his “crime,” but considering the company, it might be prudent if he did.

“I was convicted of murder, though it wasn’t entirely my fault. Still, the blame was ultimately laid upon me and thus I am being conveyed to the East, poor wretched soul that I am.”

“Ooo, a murderer! Just likes us, Mary!”

“I’m sorry to hear that, ladies. You must have been unfairly accused, same as I,” said Dorro, trying to build a bridge, at least as much he could.

But his remark only made the two wretches laugh even harder, causing Bullock to yell again and throw a metal cup in their general direction.

“No, dearie, we were quite fairly accused of murder,” said the one called Esmerelda.

“My sister and I offed quite a few fine gents, but it was in the name of good and fair commerce. We thought so, at least, until the county constable found out. He didn’t think our enterprise was as clever as we did and so here we are being transported to Fog Vale, though for the life o’ me, I don’t know why. We’re just two decent ladies running a profitable biz’ness!”

“Dat’s right, sister,” said Mary snobbishly. “We were just making our hard-scrabble livin’ in this world. Y’see, my husband’s brother, a feller named Nurk, works at a joint called the College of St. Borgo up in this fancy mucky-muck city.”

“I know it tolerably well,” smiled Dorro. “I visited that burg not three months ago.”

“I bets you ‘ave—you seem like a swell to us,” Mary added with a wink. “Now, Nurk toils day ‘n’ night for a school for so-called ‘physicks’ who make folks healthy again. And these professor gents are always complaining about a lack of, a-hem, bodies for their students to study. So we cooked up the perfect solution!”

“That we did, Mary,” continued Esmerelda, “We come up with a plan that was just dandy! Y’see, me sister and I live on a quiet road in the country with our two fellers. Every once in a while, a stranger comes travelin’ by and we offer him a nice cuppa wine to help him enjoy the journey. O’ course, our wine is a special concoction that Mary ‘n’ I cook up ourselves.”

“It’s ever so tasty!”

“Yep, we makes our own wine, and then steep it for days with herbs. The valerian root helps the gent relax and fall off to slumber ….”

“… and the deadly monkshood stops his heart quicker than you can say ‘Boo!’ laughed Mary.

“That’s right, deary. We help these travelers leave the world quietly and at peace, and we have a nice corpus to sell to them physicks in St. Borgo. Everyone’s happy!”

Dorro could barely believe his ears. Here he was, in a dismal wagon full of convicts and rotten cabbage, conversing with a pair of sweet—but quite mad—murderesses. He plastered a grin on his face and forced himself to say, “Oh, that’s … nice. Very kind of you, I’m sure.”

“Y’see, Mary, this fine sir knows the quality of our work. Listen, mister, if you ever want a glass o’ our wine, we’d be happy to make you a special cup. You won’t feel a thing and your journey thereafter will be sweet and blissful.” Esmerelda and her crazy sister both nodded happily in Dorro’s direction.

“But, Essie, remember, we won’t be here long. Nope, we’re not goin’ to any Fog Vale.”

“Shush, Mary! That’s a surprise for the brutes driving the wagon. They don’t know about the boys.”

Pfffffft!

No sooner than Esmerelda uttered those words than Dorro heard a commotion in the front of the wagon. Salty cried out, “I’m shot! I’m shot!”

Pfffffft!

Pfffffft!

Dorro knew that sound well—it was the same one that that landed him in these dire straits. Those were bright, sharp arrows hitting their mark; someone in the woods was attacking the wagon and at least one of the bounty hunters had been hit and might be mortally wounded.

It was an ambush!

[]Tartan Bonnet

Something whizzed past Dorro’s ear and he knew an arrow had just pierced the canvas wagon cover. He threw himself on the wagon floor and pulled the filthy cushion over his head. Around him were the noises of war and violence—yet another sound he knew all too well.

“Bullock, grab Salty ‘n’ follow me under the wheels!” That voice was surely Hammersmith, the big one with the scar. “Damn the prisoners—if they get killed, fine by me!”

Dorro peered out from his cushion and saw Mary and Esmerelda across the floor, hiding under their cushions and tittering like schoolgirls. “Oooo, that’ll be Chalkie and Benny, our brave husbands,” cooed Mary. “I bet Nurk is with ‘em, too! They’s come to free us!”

“Dat’s right, deary,” chirped Esmerelda. “Our fellers weren’t gonna let us go to that silly penal colony in the East. They would happily kill anyone who dared take us away. Them boys adore us, don’t they, Mary—and who can blame ‘em?”

That only made the two disturbed sisters laugh even more. Dorro became aware of a new presence in the wagon, and squinted towards the back of the van. There, holding a short and presumably sharp knife, was a Halfling he didn’t recognize.”

“Chalkie! Sweetie pie, you’s come to rescue us, you heavenly chap, you!” This must have been Mary’s husband. “I could kiss your bald, fat head.”

“No time for that, my love,” said the Halfling in low gravelly voice. “There’ll be time for smoochin’ later, but now we need to get you and Essie off this slag heap and into the woods. There are three nasty-lookin’ brutes under the front wheels, and Benny and Nurk are keepin’ ‘em busy with their bows. We don’t have much time, Mary, so grab your tartan bonnet and let’s get a move on—you, too, Essie!”

Dorro saw the women jump up and move, though Esmerelda turned quickly and spoke: “I’m sorry we can’t take ya’s with us, mister, but we enjoyed our conversation.”

Adjusting the tartan bonnet on her head, Mary chirped in, “And if ya’s ever want to stop by for a glass of our special wine, we’ll make you the best cup ever. Goodbye, deary!” She and the others leapt off the back of the wagon and bolted for the tree line. Quickly, the sound of flying arrows subsided, as the scofflaws disappeared into the woods.

Instead, the bookmaster heard a booming voice at the front of the van. “Salty, yer wound ain’t that bad, you sniveling old lady! You stay here and guard the prisoners; Bullock, you ‘n’ me are going hunting. Grab yer axe and sword, mate!”

Dorro heard the two big bounty hunters running off into the woods, presumably in pursuit of the sisters, their husbands, and brother Nurk. Lying on the wooden floor boards, he thought he heard some shouts and clangs of metal in the distance, but couldn’t really make anything out. He finally dozed off, grabbing a little of the sleep that had been eluding him for hours, but he bolted awake some time later.

“Wake up, sleepin’ beauties! We’re making camp here tonight.” Again, it was Hammersmith, the vile leader of the bounty hunters. “Get out o’ the wagon and stretch yer legs. If you make a run for it, you won’t get far in your manacles—but ya can try!”

As night began to fall, Bullock started a big fire and made porridge for the prisoners to eat from dented tin cups. Dorro found the wet, mealy glop revolting, but was so hungry he had little choice but to choke it down. On the other side of the cluster of prisoners, Hammersmith was cleaning Salty’s wound, which as he noted earlier, was more of a deep scratch than anything of great concern. In his typically charming manner, the leader took the opportunity to assail Salty’s masculinity and compare him to various lambs, bunnies, and mice. The other Halfling merely grunted, but said nothing; Dorro figured that both he and Bullock knew that you didn’t mouth off to Hammersmith, lest you get a smack in the face.

“Well ladies, I suppose yer curious about the events ‘o this day,” growled Hammersmith, standing up in the flickering fire, looking more like a horrible goblin chief than one of his own species. “Two of our ‘guests’ decided to make a run for it, assisted by three fellers. Anyone know who they were?”

Although he instantly regretted it, Dorro raised his hand. “The prisoners said something about their husbands and a brother named Nurk before they departed.”

“Oh did they now, me bucko.” The biggest, nastiest bounty hunter stepped towards Dorro and leaned down, his fetid breath making the bookmaster nauseous. “I certainly hope you didn’t have anything to do with their escape, did you?” Hammersmith was looking at Dorro as if he was a bug.

“No, sir, I heard them make a comment to that effect before they jumped off the wagon.”

“’To that effect?’ Here that, boys? We have a reg’lar gentlemen with us. La-di-dah!”

This seemed to amuse Hammersmith and he threw his head back laughing.

“Well, see here Mister Fancy Words. Yer lady friends ‘departed’ from the wagon and not long after, they departed from this earth!”

At that, the brute fished in his pocket and pulled out something. He threw it at Dorro’s feet; instantly he knew it was Mary’s soiled tartan bonnet. “Out in the woods tonight, the wolves and bears are gonna have a feast because we left ‘em five dead Halflings. All corpuses, thanks to our swords and axes, as well as a bit of their own mischief-making—that Bullock can throw a hatchet at twenty-five paces and take down a feller in a blink.”

“We caught the wenches and shackled ‘em to a tree as we went to look for the attackers. The pair was cackling and grinning the whole time. We didn’t know what they wuz up to, but when we returned, both were stone-cold stiff with eerie smiles on their faces; one of ‘em held a wineskin bag and had juice dribbling down her chin. Bullock grabbed it tried to cadge a gulp, but I knocked it out of hands. I know poison when I see it.”

“So let that be a lesson to you. Ya can try ‘n’ escape, but even if you have accessories to the crime hiding in the trees and launching arrows, we’ll smoke you out and take yer lives for the effort. We get paid to deliver you alive to Fog Vale, but if you don’t give us that satisfaction, they you’ll pay with yer life. I guarantee it. Even if we have to kill ever last one of you. Do you weasels get my meaning?”

There was no response from the chain gang of prisoners. Even Dorro gulped. Those sisters were mad, but had been so full of life just a few hours earlier. He was haunted by the fact that they were lying dead in the cold woods when he climbed back into the wagon later and hid under a blanket for the night.

How did you ever fall so low, Dorro? His mind wandered feverishly as he drifted to sleep. I had such a sweet, wonderful life and now I’m being punished for my life of ease and gentility. Considering all the unfortunates in the world, including this motley crew of crooks, perhaps I deserve this. The pendulum of life has swung the other way and now I’m getting my just desserts. Maybe the Mayor was right after all ….”

With such morbid thoughts racing through his head, Dorro fell into a fitful slumber full of demons and nightmares.

If only he knew what horrors were yet to come.

[]Secret Meetings

The children stepped into the vast emptiness of the library—in many ways, they preferred the place when it was devoid of patrons reading books or gabbing about turnips.

In the peace, it became their own place to frolic, a wonderful round building with two levels of books, scrolls, and maps. Their favorite section was the second-floor gallery which gave a fine birds-eye view of visitors’ heads and Mr. Shoe fussing away at the front desk. Wyll and Cheeryup would often play, hide, pull out old maps for perusing, and generally fritter time away on cold days.

It also smelled like old pine boards, a scent which had long since become embedded in their hearts and memories.

It was on the gallery level that they found Minty Pinter, the wee tinker sitting alone at a small table and looking over illustrated books, scrolls, and who knows what else. (They also both knew that if Bedminster Shoe had seen what a mess Minty was making, he’d have a living fit!)

“G’day, Mr. Minty—any luck so far?”

“Aye, no, as I don’t really know what I’m lookin’ fer, young miss. Mostly, I’m trying to spark some memories by looking at maps of the Great Wood and pictures of the trees. There’s something hiding in me ol’ braincase, but I can’t seem to get to it.”

“Why are you looking at pictures of trees?” Wyll wondered.

“Me ‘n’ Dalbo spent much of our lives in the forest, talkin’ about this tree or that tree. Seems like we never ran out of tree-things to talk about. He even had a few hollowed-out ones he called home from time to time.”

“Y’know, I remember something about that!” spouted Wyll. “When Dalbo rescued Floppy Parfinn from the pirates last year, they found shelter one night in one of them hollow trees. Floppy said it was surprisingly comfortable—almost like his own home. There were beds of soft mosses, and furniture carved from old logs.”

“That be our Dalbo,” recalled Minty. “His manner with trees and critters big ‘n’ small was uncanny. T’was his entire life. Still, for the life o’ me, I can’t remember what the heartwood is.”

“Methinks it had something to do with the way he talked to the denizens of the Great Wood and how they talked to him. Gracious, listen to me rant on—I sound like a bleedin’ lunatic to me own ears!”

“We believe you, Minty, and so did Mr. Dorro,” said Cheeryup, putting her hand on the tinker’s shoulder. “He said many folks saw Dalbo directing the trees into battle when the goblins attacked last Fall. There were witnesses!”

“Why don’t we go talk to them then?”

“Capital idea, Wyll. Sheriff Forgo will know who they were.”

“Let’s go. But first, Minty, let’s clean up this mess. Otherwise, Mr. Shoe will have convulsions!”

 

  • * *

 

Sheriff Forgo hadn’t slept for three days. He was racked with guilt over Dorro’s exile and felt he should have stopped the entire freak show.

At night, the lawman looked at the window and wondered, Why did you let this happen, Forgo? You only have a few friends and you let your best mate get railroaded out of town on trumped-up criminal charges. How could you?

Finally he could stand it no more. He dispatched Gadget with a fistful of urgent notes and waited. Deputy Pinkle returned an hour later with hastily scrawled replies.

At five o’clock on the third day after Dorro’s departure, the lawman told his deputy to watch the gaol and bolted from the structure as if it was on fire. He walked down the various lanes and alleys of Thimble Down, avoiding the eyes of passing villagers who might want to cadge him for a quick complaint or conversation. This wasn’t the time.

Heading south, he found his destination and ducked into a burrow with blue-painted door. Overhead, a swinging wooden sign read:

 

[Mr. Timmo & Sons
Expert Metalsmithery & Fabricator of All Things]

 

“Are they here yet?”

“Almost, Sheriff—come in the back; we’re waiting for one more.”

Forgo stepped past the counter and into a back room that doubled as a living area and a workspace for Mr. Timmo; his shop was his home and he had to make do with what he had.

Sitting at a round table was Bedminster Shoe, who was examining his fingernails and looking distracted. They heard the door open and close again; Forgo caught a bold floral scent in the air. He turned and let the final guest enter.

“Thanks for coming, Darwinna; I do appreciate it.”

“I’m actually rather happy you called this gathering, Sheriff. I haven’t slept since the trial.”

“You too? Glad I ain’t the only one. Let’s get going.”

The bulky lawman sat in a chair that creaked under his weight, while the metalsmith brought in a tray bearing a teapot and four cups.

“I’m sorry, Timmo—we’ll need one more cup,” said the solicitor. “I’ve taken the liberty of inviting another.” They all heard the blue door open and shut again, as well as a myriad of groans and sighs. A head poked through the doorway to the rear.

“So this is where we are? Grand.”

Tiberius Grumbleoaf entered the room, bearing his big leather volume in his meaty hands and tiny reading glasses on his nose.

The quintet made a comical sight: there was Grumbleoaf and Forgo, both large, gruff, and opinionated Halflings on one side of the table with Mr. Timmo and Mr. Shoe on the other—neither of them weighing over five stone, and both pale, meek, and of introverted dispositions.

In the midst of this motley assemblage all was the ravishing Darwinna Thrashrack, today wearing a cream-colored winter coat with decorative pearl trim and a charming, off-kilter hat sitting atop her perfectly curled and coifed hair.

“Thanks all fer comin’,” groused Forgo who wasn’t one for pleasantries. “We know why we’re here. We just need to figure out what we’re gonna do about it!”

“It was all perfectly legal, Sheriff,” offered Grumbleoaf. “Short of committing yet another crime, there’s not much we could have done to save dear Dorro.”

“That’s my point!” snarled the lawman. “We should have broken the law. Dorro is our friend and we let him down. I can’t believe what a spineless ninny I am.”

Darwinna patted him on the arm. “You’re right, Forgo. We did fail the bookmaster and I too am sick about it. What are you thinking of?”

“Not to be presumptuous,” said Timmo gently, “but I assume the Sheriff wants us think of ways to leverage the situation.”

“Leverage how?” snorted Grumbleoaf.

Bedminster Shoe coughed politely. “Why Mr. Grumbleoaf—I believe our good Forgo wants to figure out a way to bring Dorro back, either legally … or illegally.”

“Quite right, Mr. Shoe,” added the metalsmith. “And don’t forget Osgood Thrip. The good Sheriff wants to put both their necks in a noose and pull the rope tight, until it hurts.”

By now, Forgo was grinning ear to ear. But it was Darwinna who said, “My goodness, Timmo and Bedminster! I’m glad you two gentlemen didn’t become solicitors. We’d be simply doomed in court by your wicked cunning!”

They all laughed, but Tiberius Grumbleoaf cracked open his leather-bound book and began furiously scrawling notes within.

As Darwinna knew, this was precisely how the eccentric solicitor captured his most brilliant, and craftiest, thoughts.

[]Fog Vale

Dorro was lying atop his rancid cushion, staring at the equally rank and moth-riddled tarp that covered the wagon. Several times he’d awakened during the night, jostled by a bump in the road.

Not only was he on his way to a distant prison farm in deplorable conditions, but the previous afternoon, their party had been ambushed and now two of his fellow inmates were dead. Somewhere between fear and lack of sleep, the bookmaster’s mind was beginning to play tricks on him and he occasionally thought he was a horrible murderer and deserved this fate.

Pulling back from the brink of senseless anxiety, he sensed light overhead and a bleak dawn broke over the trail. He also sensed the wagon descending into a gray, misty terrain; Dorro tried to peek forward and aft, but only saw glimpses of cliffs scraggly trees, and brush. They’d already been on the road for several days and he was sure their destination was not far off—that desperate-sounding place called Fog Vale—which was to be his home for the next year. Provided he survived, of course.

The wagon abruptly stopped and the bounty hunters leapt over the buckboard onto the rocky earth. There were clangs of metal and pots, by which Dorro assumed they were to be fed, more like pigs in a sty than Halflings of any decency.

“Wake up, ya beauties!” sneered Bullock. “We’re having one last break before we get to the farm. Go do yer business in the bushes and come back for yer cold gruel. Don’t wander too far, my sweeties—there’s goblins everywhere ‘round here and we already lost two of you lot. Won’t look good if we bring in more corpuses!”

The big thug chortled and walked off to prepare something Dorro could only charitably called food.

The Halfling swung his manacled feet over the back and took a few steps to stretch his legs. They were stiff and cramped from several days on the bumpy trail; his backside ached, too, perhaps as a result of his soft life in Thimble Down. Dorro’s disposition was becoming gloomier by the minute.

The break didn’t last long and after forcing down some of disgusting oat pudding that Bullock called breakfast, they clambered back to their benches.

“Okay gals, here’s the deal,” barked Hammersmith picking up the reins again. “Now that you’re all supped and refreshed, we’re ready to get to the farm. Once we get to Fog Vale, you’ll be under the ministrations of the Overseer, who’s a real piece o’ work, I can assure you. He makes me look like a dainty little girl with pigtails! But you’ll find that out for yerselves.”

That crack made Bullock and Salty roll with glee, though Dorro didn’t see the humor; his thoughts were positively morbid by this point. The wagon began creaking down the track, headed downward into an abyss.

Come on, Dorro, old boy—snap out of it! The bookmaster chided himself bitterly. You have some sort of melancholy settling on you. That’s not the Winderiver way. You have to survive this debacle and get back to Wyll. You must!

Dorro forced himself to take a more positive view and felt better, but he knowing dark days were to come. He did feel a lingering bitterness towards Sheriff Forgo for not rescuing him; he felt his friend had let him down, but pushed that thought aside as the wagon found level terrain and shortly pulled to full stop.

Bullock, Salty and Hammersmith again decamped and rousted the prisoners from their benches onto the gravely soil. Dorro could barely see a few feet in any direction—the mist was thick, he wasn’t sure where he was.

“Here we be, my luv’lies,” Hammersmith leered at them, cracking a grin across his scarred face.

“Welcome to Hell.”

 

  • * *

 

Wyll and Cheeryup slunk into the library for their first class in a week. They’d been absent during Dorro’s trial and departure, but finally, Mr. Timmo said he’d had enough and shooed them out the door of the Perch. Worse, they hadn’t made progress delving into the mystery of the heartwood.

Mr. Shoe brought the students to attention, and took the twenty or so younglings through lessons on Havling poetry (they were discussing the early sonnets of Bodurdo); arithmetic; letters and writing; and natural philosophy.

Bedminster was a fine teacher and rarely boring, but today, neither child could muster any enthusiasm for his tutelage. When he dismissed the class, they sighed with relief and made for the exit. Perhaps they could find Minty Pinter and ask him more questions about the life and times of Dalbo Dall.

“Tut, tut, you two stay behind! I need to speak you.”

The twelve-year-olds groaned and sat down at their desks while the rest of the children streamed out into the snow to play. “But Mr. Shoe, we just want to ….”

Bedminster shushed Cheeryup with a wave of his hand.

“Come, pull your benches to my desk. I have something important to show you—it’s about your little puzzle.”

“What puzzle?”

“What puzzle, sir? Learn how to properly address your elders, young man—haven’t I taught you anything? Now, as I was saying, this conundrum … I spoke with Minty the other day and he filled me in about this heartwood of yours.”

Cheeryup looked sour. “We haven’t made progress, Mr. Shoe. We’ve asked all over the village and no one has a clue.”

“We’re stumper’d, sir.”

“That’s stumped, not stumper’d,” corrected the academic. “Anyway, I didn’t work in this village as a scribe for twenty years to be deterred by a lack of witnesses. I’ve been doing a little research in the archives myself.”

With a mildly conceited sniff, Shoe began leafing through some folios on his writing desk and finally pulled out a single parchment sheet.

“Here it is! I was looking through old letters that I’d crossed-referenced by subject matter and found a few interesting ones, especially this one. Shall I read it to? It’s written in a rather archaic form of olde Havling, an older variation on contemporary Halfling script. Let me begin.”

Wyll and Cheeryup stole glances at each other and secretly smiled. This was their first break.

 

  • * *

 

August 4, 1496 A.B.

 

My dearest Professor Hornswaddle,

 

I am Responding to thy letter from earlier in Spring regarding the rituals of our Folk, all of which you are Compiling for a treatise on Halfling culture and lore.

I find it a Compelling topic myself and have touched upon it in my various Philosophical Lectures in our small village of Thimble Down. One ritual in particular catches my thoughts and I wonder if perhaps you might find it of Interest.

I am referring to a strange act that happens in High Summer, when the air grows Thicke and Warm, and the tiny insects and denizens of our earth make an enormous Racket in the trees, grass, and fields.

During these uncomfortable nights, Thimble Downers do a Curious thing—they commune in the Middle of the Night near our woodlands, which we know as The Great Woode.

On the edge of that fine Bosque sits an enormous elm tree, which local folke call The Meeting Tree. It is a very fine Specimen with a grand canopy and a trunk that measures at least one entire Rod, or perhaps three full Fathoms in circumference. It is a mighty tree, I can assure you.

On certain nights of High Summer, Halflings from the village congregate at this tree. Young or old, gentleman or lady, wealthy or low-born, it makes no difference. Folke arrive around Midnight and spend hours in the grand presence of The Meeting Tree. Some sing, talk quietly to the leafy beast, or just stare at its massive branches and form.

Others wrap their arms around its Trunk and squeeze as if a beloved child. Wee bairns are brought there for blessings and the elderly crave a final visit before they Pass from this Life. In happy times and sad, this is where Halflings come.

We have one foolish Fellow in the village who has anointed himself Keeper of The Meeting Tree and he verily dances around the trunk and utters Mad Incantations at these occurrences. We titter at him, yet let him Continue his wilde, but Delightful ways—we never Interfere with one’s own Jocularity in Thimble Down.

I know this sounds Daft, but though I am without fact, I do feel that The Meeting Tree somehow draws the villagers to its bower on these Warm Nights. It is calling to them and they are summoned from their soft mattresses to sit in the grass for All of a Sticky Summer’s night.

Then, an hour ’ere come the Dawn, they quietly get up and amble Home for a few more ticks of gentle Slumber. Can you explain that, Professor? Methinks if anyone has the cranial capacity to solve this riddle, it would be you.

That is all I have Time to relay at this point, but I do look forward to continuing our Correspondence. I am only Too Pleased to share the interesting and oft Strange Ways of our Halfling folk. Looking forward to your Reply.

 

Yours in scholarly pursuit,

 

[—Master Cardoon Middles
Tutor, Village of Thimble Down]

 

Post Script: Not that this is entirely relevant, Prof. Hornswaddle, but I neglected to mention that The Meeting Tree is, on occasion, also called “the heartwood” by various folks within our small hamlet. For that, however, I cannot provide a Reason. But it remains a persistent thought in my mind—

Heartwood of what, I ask?

[]The Overseer

Dorro and the rest of the prisoners were standing in a bank of fog as thick as Hammersmith’s chubby neck. He watched as the bounty hunters rode off, leaving them alone, hungry, and cold—and completely baffled. The next thing they heard only made it worse.

Grrrrrr! Grrrrrrrr! Rarrarararrr!

The bookmaster felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle as the sound of ferocious animals came at them from every direction, but they couldn’t see anything.

Is this how it’s going to end. His mind spun frantically. We’re to be torn to bits by savage beasts. There was probably no penal farm anyway—just a place of execution far from home.

Dorro dropped to an instinctive crouch and hid his face in his hands, waiting for the inevitable doom. The growling became louder by the second until it seemed they were surrounded.

Yet—there was no attack.

The bookmaster looked up, directly into the maw of a vicious dog. Indeed, there were snarling hounds all around the group, lunging at the weak, but held by chain leashes, several brutish Halflings behind them.

“Welcome to Fog Vale!” crowed one of the handlers. “I’m hoping one of you lot is foolish enough to make a run for it, because me dogs ain’t been fed yet today and they could use a good meal. Come on—I dares ya. Har!”

The prisoners cowered from the terrifying hounds, some whimpering and crying even. As if on cue, a young inmate decided to take his chances. He was a fit and wily sneak-thief from some distant village. In a blink, the lad disappeared into the fog, running at full tilt to freedom. Dorro could hear his fleet footsteps disappearing into the distance.

“Well, ain’t that precious,” said the handler, biding his time.

“That one heeded me advice and scarpered back up the trail. Big mistake, chum. The ones ‘o you that will survive your term in Fog Vale will do exactly what you’re told and when. But that one, his day is done. Jawbreaker! Get ‘im, boy!”

He dropped the chain he was holding and let his savage black mastiff bolt away; Dorro closed his eyes in terror as he knew something bad was about to happen. Moments later, there was a horrible scream in the distance, followed by the sound of animal violence and shrieks for help. Then silence.

“Awright boys, let ‘em all go! Feedin’ time for the hounds!” The muscled dogs rushed off into the gray misty wall; in distance, Dorro could hear them fighting other over bone and gristle.

“My name is Barnacle and I am second-in-command of the prison farm at Fog Vale. There are only about twenty of us in management and mebbe eighty of you lot. And here’s how it goes: we give commands and you do what we say. If you don’t, you can make a break for it and end up like the feller my darlings are dining on right now. We don’t feed ‘em much, but that makes the hounds more attentive to prisoners that don’t follow rules. Any questions, my pets?”

One older inmate raised his hand. “Where exactly is we? I ain’t never seen no Fog Vale on any map.”

“Good question, Grandfather,” Barnacle continued in his rough, uneducated manner.

“You are about a hunnerd and fitty miles from anywhere, at the foothills of the Grey Mountains. But instead of up, we’re down. Fog Vale is a small valley at the base of the first hills, cut over thousands of years by the river you can hear in the distance. At one point, the river filled this whole valley, but over time, is now just a trickle of what it was.”

“On the brighter side, it left about two hunnerd acres of good soil and that’s what we run the farm on. There ain’t no trade here; this is hard dirt farming and we only eat what you prisoners can grow in the fields and gardens, plus our small herds of pigs and cows and a little wild game and fish we catch in traps ‘n’ weirs. But if you don’t grow nuttin’, you don’t eat—and you die. Simple at that. Next question?”

Dorro raised his hand.

“The bounty hunters said there are goblins in these hills. Is that true?”

“Oh, it’s true, me beauty,” croaked the boss. “These festering hills and forests are fairly teemin’ with the beasties. They creep all around here, lookin’ for ways to steal our food ‘n’ ponies, or capture a prisoner or two.”

“We keep a constant guard; we have to because them lot is relentless. They even call to us in our own Halfling tongue, trickin’ us into believing that one of our own has been captured in the forest. But whoever is dim enough to follow those voices don’t come back. They are nefarious and smarter than they look. I doubt many of you have seen an Eastern mountain orkus up close and proper. Gives me a fright to think about it.”

“Actually, I’ve seen many goblins up close,” mumbled Dorro before he could shut himself up.

“You have?” asked Barnacle. “I don’t believe it—a prim thing like you?”

Growing irritated, Dorro took the bait. “Yes, I have extensive experience with the genus Orkulum. I’ve studied them for years and even spoken to one or two. And my village was attacked by a full goblin army last fall and we fought them off!”

“Hear that, boys? This feller says he talks to goblins! What a loon!” All the brutes began howling. “Say feller, do you talk to fairies and sprites, too? You’ve got some imagination.”

“Do I?” snapped Dorro indignantly. “If so, how do I know that a mountain goblin stands only an inch or two taller than we do; is heavily muscled with long arms and short legs; and has a grotesque lumpen head and warty gray, green, black or grey skin? Kind of like you, actually!”

The bookmaster cursed his own biting tongue; he was in for a beating now. But the insult only made Barnacle laugh harder.

“Actually, Missy, you ain’t far from the mark! Maybe you do have some experience with our throat-slitting friends. That might come in handy down the road, after of course, we beat some sense into you. Handy indeed!”

“Now, you lot will follow me good pal Hodgepodge back towards the huts for some food and clothes. As much as we’d like to feed you to the dogs, we need you to work the farm, run patrols ‘round the fields, and make vittles for ourselves and the Overseer, who I believe is approaching even as we speak”

“Thanks for the kind introduction, Mr. Barnacle,” said a new voice approaching from the void. It was sly, rasping, and menacing and suddenly, the hairs on the back of Dorro’s neck shot up.

I know that voice! Where have I heard it before ….

Suddenly, he froze. The bookmaster knew exactly who was coming towards them. It was a Halfling who once had tried to kill him—and indeed, very nearly succeeded.

[]A Prickly Thistle

It was a Tuesday morning in Thimble Down and Sheriff Forgo was as pleased as punch. Not one half hour earlier, his secret cadre of Darwinna, Grumbleoaf, Timmo and Bedminster Shoe had slyly met at the library to hammer out a plan.

“Do you think it will work?” fretted Mr. Shoe. “This isn’t my bailiwick, but it seems plausible, I suppose.”

“Oh, it’ll work!” said the Sheriff. “This’ll hit ‘em where it hurts.”

“Better yet,” added Darwinna Thrashrack, looking quite comely in a light-blue cape matched with a pale yellow scarf, “it’s entirely legal. We can’t break the law to get our Dorro back, but we can send the Mayor and that odious Osgood Thrip a clear and blunt message.”

“Don’t forget our esteemed colleague, my dear,” chortled Tiberius Grumbleoaf. “Granted, Hamment Shugfoot is our friend, but he knew the Mayor was overreaching in his authority to exile Dorro and could have publicly said so. No, my dear, I fear Hamment is in league with the Mayor and Mr. Thrip.

“I had the same thought, Tiberius,” said the lady solicitor. “And I don’t like it. Yet Hamment isn’t without his charms; if only he wasn’t so dashed handsome!”

Grumbleoaf coughed. “His charms are lost on me, Darwinna, but if you say so.”

The big Halfling cracked open his leather tome and began scribbling away, as was his wont.

“What should I do, Sheriff?” asked Timmo. “I fear my role is a rather small one.”

“Poo on that, Timmo me boy!,” croaked Forgo. “Why, you know half the village. First I want you to go have a chat with Mr. Mungo and Edythe and fill them in on the plan. Then fan out across the High Street and discretely give our message to anyone you know. It’ll filter across the town before nuncheon and, by supper, Thrip’s head will be on fire!”

They all laughed, shook hands, and with a few nods and winks, the cadre adjourned and went their separate ways.

 

  • * *

 

The Sheriff received the first evidence the plan had been sprung just after the noon hour.

Dowdy Cray and Bog the Blacksmith ambled into the gaol to find Forgo polishing off a bowl of lamb pie, a savory concoction of tender meat, carrots, potatoes, and herbs that had been carefully baked into a crust by Mrs. Fowl, the village’s finest cook. He washed it down with draughts from a mug of cider and burped with sweet satisfaction.

“Sheriff, we thought you should know …” said Dowdy with uncertainty.

“We ain’t trying to be worrywarts,” continued Bog, “but there’s some strange stuff goin’ on in the village.”

“Really? Sit down, boys, and tell me all about it,” murmured Forgo like a fat spider about to devour his prey.

“Well, it’s Market Day and the shops should be bustling, but half of ‘em are dead empty.” Dowdy Cray looked around, as if he was revealing a secret.

“Too true, Sheriff. The Bumbling Badger tavern, the baker, and our shops are fine. But some others—like the miller’s shop, apothecary, and grocer’s are without customers. So is the butcher shop and most of the seedy taverns and stalls in Fell’s Corner. The whole village is buzzin’ about it, but we can’t figure why.”

“Hmmmm … I wonders what them places all have in common?” begged the Sheriff, scratching his scruffy whiskered chin. “Maybe them places have all fallen out of fashion.”

“I ain’t no genius,” noted the wagoncrafter (You ain’t kiddin’, Dowdy, giggled Forgo to himself), “But all them places are owned by Osgood Thrip and, so goes the rumors, backed by the Mayor himself. But why would everyone bug outta their shops?”

“Now that’s a mystery, fellers! But I thanks ya both for stoppin’ in and letting me know. I’ll look into it right away. At least, after my nap.”

Forgo burped loudly and ambled back into the cells, where he would spend the next hour in sweet slumber. The cadre’s plan was already beginning to pay dividends—and now he knew it was time to launch the second part of their scheme.

“Have a lovely day, Osgood!” he thought to himself as he settled down for a well-earned snooze.

 

  • * *

 

Dorro felt sick to his stomach. No! This can’t be. His thoughts raced desperately. Not him—I might as well run and take my chances with the vicious dogs. At least the agony will end quicker.

“You rabble, shut up! This is the Overseer and you will do exactly what he tells you to do. Or you will suffer the consequences,” shouted Barnacle.

“Oh, don’t be so hard on ‘em,” cooed the sandpapery voice. “Why, they’ll learn quick enough what’s right for ‘em and what ain’t.”

A Halfling stepped forward, one whose face Dorro knew only too well. It was a mean, heartless face with stubble of a beard and not much more on top. A scar ran down the left side of his head, from his eyelid to his neck. His eyes were squinty and his mouth contorted into a permanent leer.

It was none other than Bill Thistle, the violent thief who had terrorized Thimble Down only a year or two earlier [recounted in the earlier tale, called simply Thimble Down].

Bill’s crimes against the village were more than enough to earn him exile to the East. Worse, it only took him a second to notice the bookmaster.

“Well, well—what an unexpected pleasure. If it ain’t Mr. Dainty-river or whatever. Whatchoo name anyway, friend?”

The bookmaster coughed. “Winderiver. Dorro Fox Winderiver.”

“Ooooo yeah, dats it. Mr. Windy-Pants hisself. The bookfeller from that unfortunate rat hole, Thimble Down. We have a bit of a history don’t we, mate? You musta done sumptin’ bad to be sent here.”

He leaned in close to Dorro, so close that the bookmaster could smell his fetid breath.

“On account of your unexpected, but quite welcome presence ‘ere, we’re gonna give you some extra chores to make you feel at home. I’ll cook up sumptin’ special for ya, too—a gift for giving me this lump on me head. Do you remember doing that, chum?”

Bill rubbed his skull menacingly. Dorro did remember grappling violently with Bill when he broke into the Perch. The big Halfling could have killed him, but at the last second, Dorro found an iron pan and clanged the brute on the head, knocking him senseless. It had saved his life, but now, the shoe was on the other foot; it was Bill Thistle’s time for payback.

“I still can’t believe a little twig like you bested ol’ Bill, but we’ll have to rectify that bit ‘o history. Maybe I’ll let you take another poke at me just to see if it was luck or what. ‘Cos if it’s the latter, I’d love to knock the stuffin’ out of you, Windy-Pants. T’would be me pleasure!”

By now, Bill and his minions were guffawing up a storm, while Dorro had turned every shade of pink imaginable. He had thought that there was nothing worse that could happen than coming to Fog Vale, but indeed, he now knew there was.

[]Bill’s Tale

Dorro’s first week in Fog Vale was hellacious.

He and his fellow prisoners were housed in a cold, damp barrack where they were each provided a crude bunk; an old mattress stuffed with moldy straw; and a dirty, tattered thing that was supposed be a blanket. Dorro was loathe to think what manner of bedbugs and other crawly creatures inhabited the bedding alongside them.

Plumbing was, of course, nonexistent and the cuisine was spartan at best—gruel, boiled corn mush, potatoes, and a hard, unleavened bread called bannock that the bookmaster thought could double as masonry.

Worse, Bill Thistle had sent word to his bullies that the Thimble Downer should get the worst jobs in the Vale, from cleaning outhouses and patrolling the perimeter (where goblins lurked) to mucking out the barn and peeling potatoes. He knew no one on the farm, save Amos Pinchbottle, who seemed to be thriving in the wretched place, along with his moronic cousins.

“How’s it goin’ there, Mr. Dorro?” Pinchbottle slapped down his bowl of overcooked oat porridge on the long wooden table and sidled up next to the bookmaster. “This looks rather tasty, eh? Ain’t ya gonna eat yours?”

“Help yourself, Amos. I’ve stomached about as much as I can.”

Exhausted and bored, the bookmaster tried to muster a conversation.

“Don’t you miss Thimble Down, Amos? The Halflings, the food, the pleasant air? I’d give anything to go back to my old life. I suppose I took it for granted.”

“Buck up, Mr. Dorro. Could be worse—we could be dead like those crazy sisters or that damnable fool that tried to escape on our first day. Watch what ol’ Amos does and try to fit in. Your year will pass in a jiffy, just you watch. And lucky you—the Overseer seems to be an old mate of yers! That Bill Thistle cuts an impressive figure, he do, and I’d be happy to shake his hand. Such authority! Such panache!”

Dorro could barely believe his ears, but considering Amos had the intellectual capacity of a woodchuck, it made some sense. He just smiled and nodded, before heading off to his next job.

“Oy! You. The boss wants to see ya!”

It was Barnacle, bidding for Dorro to follow. Bill wants to see me. Maybe this is it—the moment he beats me senseless, thought the Thimble Downer. At least if he kills me, I shall be released from this nightmare.

“In here, Windy-Pants!” Barnacle grinned as he proffered that unfortunate nickname. “He’s waitin’ for you in the back room. That’s his official office, y’see.”

Dorro walked down a cold, musty hallway as if headed to his doom. He walked into the dank room that served as Bill’s chamber and Barnacle pushed him down onto a hard bench; across a crude desk, Bill stared at him blankly as the henchman department and closed the door. The silence was deafening.

“So, Mr. Dandy-River, here we are,” cooed Bill. “Must say, I never ‘spected to see you again. We had quite an adventure in that Thimble Down o’ yers, but I do want to tell ya one thing ….”

Dorro said nothing.

“In a strange way, Windy-River, I want to thank you.”

The bookmaster was completely lost at this point. Bill Thistle was thanking him?

“It’s true; if it weren’t for you and yer meldlin’ Sheriff Fargo ….”

“Forgo.”

“Righty-o, Forgo, I’d a never been shipped to Fog Vale. This is the best thing that ever happened to ol’ Bill Thistle, I tells ya. I came here as a ruddy prisoner, same as you, a lowly toad who scrubbed the outhouse. I got whipped and beaten, but then something miraculous happened.”

“Them goblins stepped up their game and started a new campaign to destroy us. In short order, the Overseer back then—a big slob named Grobtooth—took a poisoned orkus dart to the neck one day and died on the spot.”

“Within a week, the goblins took about five more of the goons who watched over our lot and pretty soon there were only a few of the thugs left. And boy, were they scared! So they talked it over and said they were gonna pick a few of us to become the new guards—and I was one of ‘em.”

“Better still, they hightailed it out of the Vale as fast as they could, leaving a classic vacuum o’ power! It was the perfect chance for Bill Thistle to show his quality. A gent named McGerk tried to become the Overseer, but I challenged him and we had a bit of a knife fight. And well, Mr. Windy-River, you know how good I am with a knife.”

Bill grinned evilly.

“And that’s how I’m here, the official Overseer of Fog Vale. Once them cowardly blokes got back to the West, they decided to leave well enough alone and officially install me as the boss. See, I got the letter to prove it!”

He pointed to a tattered parchment on the wall behind his desk.

“Since then, I’ve received accolades from the constables and sheriffs of the western counties for my prudent and iron-fisted administration of this here facility. And honestly, I do love it ‘ere!”

“Sure, it’s dangerous work, but there’s also a thrill—every mornin’ when I awake I have no idea whether I’ll still be breathing by dusk. Fog Vale is me own little kingdom and I’m servin’ the public good. So I kindly thank you and Sheriff Forgo for pushing me in this direction, for I am ever in your debt, kind sir.”

Dorro saw an opportunity. “Tosh, it was nothing, Bill. Just trying to help out, you know. Say, if I did you a favor, perhaps you could ….”

“Sorry, mate, but I take me job seriously. You done a crime and a goodly one at that—murder! I didn’t think you were the type. There’s probably more malice in you than meets the eye!”

“But!”

“But nuthin’, friend. You’re an exiled prisoner in the custody of the Overseer of Fog Vale, which is me. I hope your time here will be fruitful and will help rehabilitate your lost soul and lowly moral standards through hard work and suffering.”

“Oh, and I still owes ya a beatin’ for whackin’ me with that frying pan; I still have the bump to prove it. Other than that, I bid you a good day, Mr. Windy-River, and hopes ya doesn’t get hacked up by goblins anytime soon.”

Mouth hanging open, the bookmaster arose obediently and left the room.

Did that just transpire? he thought to himself. That mildly insane Bill Thistle is now my lord and master, and intends to make my next twelve months here a living Hell. This is becoming more absurd by the minute.

Dorro didn’t have time to finish that thought as Barnacle shouted his name from across.

“Hey you! Get a bucket ‘n’ a mop, and slop out the outhouse. It’s reeking again and it’s only January. You should smell it in July!”

[]Green Slime Cookies

After a relatively quiet day at the gaol, Sheriff Forgo ambled over to the Hanging Stoat for a well-deserved supper.

Inside the rambling, smoky tavern, he soaked in the ambiance of his favorite watering hole; Forgo even had a favorite stool—the exceptionally worn one at the very end of the bar, perfectly contoured for his rump. He found it available for his enjoyment and scuttled over to claim it before anyone else did.

“Howdy Mungo, how’s things? While yer at it, fetch me a bowl of the curried chicken stew and roasted rutabaga. I caught that intriguing scent from the gaol!”

“I’ll put the order in right away, Sheriff.”

The rather porcine barman shouted the order back to the kitchen and leaned on the counter. “Sad about poor Dorro. Me ‘n’ Edith do feel rotten, especially about how we cleaned up at the trial. We pocketed some real gold that night.”

“I’m sure Winderiver won’t begrudge you the business. Speaking of which, how is the flow tonight?”

The barman scanned the premises. “‘Tis lookin’ dandy! But odd you should ask—I’ve heard a few rumors today that some of my fellow tavern keepers are complaining of a bad case of the ‘empties.’”

“The empties?”

“A technical term pertaining to taverns, referring a-course to a sudden epidemic of empty chairs and stools. Not good for a barman or his purse, no sirree!”

“Hmmm, thar’s interestin’, Mungo.”

Forgo had a satisfied look on his face as Freda the barmaid placed a steaming bowl of stew in front of him. It didn’t last long, as the lawman was famished and devoured the lot in just a few minutes, taking a few roasted and lightly salted rutabagas along for comfort. A pale lager finished the culinary masterpiece and the Sheriff let fly a loud belch for good measure.

Brrrawwwwp!

“Sheriff, I want a word with you!”

Forgo knew that voice—it was Osgood Thrip, snorting and huffing as he always did when he was perturbed.

“Errrmmm … hullo, Osgood,” preened the lawman, bracing for the worst as he turned on his favorite stool. “What can I help you with today?”

“You know exactly what I want to talk about, Forgo.” Thrip’s face and brow were bright red, as was the Mayor who followed him, similarly hued. “The Mayor and I have been getting reports all day that certain shops and taverns around Thimble Down have stood vacant, while others are thriving. And guess what? The ones that are empty are mine! I know you’re behind this, Sheriff—you and your Winderiver-loving cronies.”

“Osgood, I’m taken aback! Do you really think ol’ Forgo would be able to stop folks from frequenting the shops and watering holes of their choice? I’m just a simple lawman, not a fancy-pants man of industry. Why, I take three naps a day.”

“Don’t give me that country-bumpkin act, Sheriff—you’re smarter than you look! I bet that Darwinna Thrashrack is up to her neck in this. She’s one of the brightest witches in the village and could talk anyone into do what wants just by batting those eyelashes of hers.”

“I’m sure the solicitor will be mighty flattered you’ve noticed her eyelashes, Osgood, but that said, even if some folks are diverting others from patronizing one shop and not another, that wouldn’t exactly be against the law.” Forgo delivered the line exactly has he’d been rehearsing it all day. “Umm, now would it?”

The weaselly Mayor finally spoke up. “Mark my words, Sheriff, if you’re behind this, I’ll have your job.”

This threat prompted the lawman off his favorite stool and he loomed up over the pair menacingly.

“You can do what you want, Mr. Mayor—I’ve been covering your tail for years, as you well know. You ain’t gonna find another constable who’ll do your dirty laundry for you, day in and day out.”

“In fact—I’ve been too lax around this village and let quite a few laws and rules go unenforced, but heck, I think I’ll change that. I know for a fact that some of your taverns in Fell’s Corner haven’t been inspected for years, Osgood—maybe it’s time I paid a visit to make sure everything is in order. Would be a shame if I had to write up some citations ….”

Thrip and the Mayor shot each other quick glances.

Osgood snarled under his breath, “Don’t push me, Sheriff. If we find out your behind all this tomfoolery, you might be the next one exiled to the Eastern frontier. Then you and your pal Winderiver can have someone to hug when the goblins storm Fog Vale and rip all the inmates to shreds.”

The two turned on their feet and stormed from the Hanging Stoat, leaving the Sheriff standing with a look of bemusement on his face.

To his greater surprise, the rest of the crowd began cheering wildly. A few Thimble Downers even bought Forgo warm jiggers of honeygrass whiskey for telling Osgood Thrip and the Mayor just where they could stick their spurious assertions, even if they were entirely true.

It was the most pleasant night Forgo enjoyed in many a moon.

 

  • * *

 

“Flour? Check. Oats. Check? Milled corn? Check.

The Halfling bustled about the storeroom to check on the inventory. It was part of the kitchen area at Fog Vale, but he thought the term was used loosely—a kitchen, he knew, was where one made edible food, but this facility simply churned out sustenance, the material that kept them from starving to death.

Mr. Dorro, however, was not entirely discontent.

In the past week, he’d revealed a knowledge of culinary adroitness, one that hadn’t gone unnoticed by the bosses—and all by making a simple comment to the cook, a thin, timid Halfling named Toby.

Noting that a little salt pork would bring out the flavor of his crude stews, perhaps with some added dashes of pepper and dark mustard, Dorro had inadvertently caused a sensation and Bill Thistle demanded to know how the typically rotten cook had improved himself in just one day.

Torn between making an outright lie or being replaced, Toby wisely took the high road and said the Thimble Downer had offer an idea or two. As it turned out, a prisoner who could truly craft edible food was worth his weight in gold and in a blink, the bookmaster had been promoted from mucking out stables to preparing food, which was precisely in his area of expertise.

“Salt? Check. Dried beef? Check ….”

“Hey you—fancy boy!” One of the bosses stepped into the storeroom, followed by Amos Pinchbottle. “The Overseer wants to know what’s for his vittles tonight.”

Dorro looked pensive for a moment. “I’m going to endeavor to make a few pork pies, but I will need some milk and butter. Make sure I have some from the barn, will you, Peasley?”

“Hey, I’m a boss! You don’t order me ‘round,” snarled the gruff guard. “I oughta cuff you for talkin’ to me like that.”

The bookmaster would brook none of it—he was well aware of the shift in power and the supreme might of the spoon.

“If you want to have some pie tonight, Mr. Peasley, you will get my milk and butter. Cream is even better. Or should I tell Bill Thistle that you didn’t want to help make his dinner tasty and creamy?”

The moronic henchman glowered. “Fine! Pinchbottle, you go fetch vittles for this swine and be fast about it. In fact, you can be his lackey for the entire day—I’ve got other prisoners to beat.”

As Peasley stomped off, the bookmaster also realized that his year in Fog Vale might go better than expected. As a fellow who was quickly becoming the head cook, he could while away his sentence doing something he enjoyed. Of course, being the shrewd chap he was, Dorro also wanted to make sure they’d let him leave at the end of the year—he would be a very fine cook; just not too good of one.

“Well Amos, things do seem to be looking up here. Maybe you were right after all.”

“Y’see, me bucko, Fog Vale is a gift in its way, a place for a feller to reinvent hisself into something new and thrillin’.”

“Let’s hope so ….”

Thump!

Dorro flinched and looked about him. Something fell onto the floor behind him.

“Damn rats! They’re the size of dogs around here, Amos,” huffed Dorro, revolted by the thought a large rodents in his larder.

Fwump!

“Get out, you filthy creatures! Accursed rats.”

“’ooo you callin’ a rat?”

The bookmaster spun around to see who had spoken those words—but there was no one in the room aside from Amos. Panic was beginning to envelope him, though Pinchbottle just looked at his nails, having spent much of his life around rats, large and small.

“Who said that? Show yourself!”

“Why, I did ….”

Dorro turned back around and felt his knees buckle. For there in front of him was a form knew all too well—that of an Eastern mountain goblin. In seconds, two more orkuses emerged from behind the crates and started circling around the Halflings. Dorro knew they were in deep trouble and wished Peasley would return with his milk and butter at that very moment.

“What do you want? Food? Just take it!” he sputtered.

He took a deeper look at the three. They were certainly very similar to Grimble and Braâch in terms of size and coloring (whose tale was recounted in Devils & Demons), not to mention the wicked goblins that had raided Thimble Down the previous Fall. Clearly, these fellows were not to be trifled with.

“So yer the cooks here, eh?” croaked the first orkus, leering.

“I ain’t no cook,” said a terrified Amos Pinchbottole, pointing to the bookmaster. “He is!”

“Can you bake something tasty for us?”

“Certainly not!” sneered Dorro. “I work here. Why don’t you boys take some food and go back to your own caves? I won’t tell anyone. Help yourself.”

A different goblin said, “Oh we can eat any ol’ time. But we ain’t too handy with yummy food—most of the time, it’s raw meat. We wants something delectable, like you Halflings make. We’ve had it before.”

“You’ve had our food? How?” Dorro was stalling for time, hoping some other prisoners or bosses would show up and distract the beasts while he escaped. “Tell me about it.”

“We’ve caught some of yer chums and made ‘em cook for us. Some of them was very good—others not so good. Them we turned into slaves … or turned them into suppers themselves!”

At that, the goblins began to jump up and down in joy at the thought of eating Halfling flesh. It was repellent.

“Well, I don’t have time to cook your dinner—but help yourself to some food and I will give you a few recipes. How does that sound?”

Dorro was growing desperate.

“Green slime cookies,” lisped the third goblin.

“Pardon me?”

“Green slime cookies—them’s me fav’rite.”

“Ummm, I don’t know that recipe—I’m sure it’s delicious—but if you come back next week, I will bake you some.”

This is getting absurd, thought the Thimble Downer and the conversation was certainly not trending in the right direction. The goblins were now leaping about higher and higher, saying whatever came into their minds.

“Blood ‘n’ Heart pudding!”

“Bear Tongue Soup!”

“Candied Eyeballs!”

“Yum, yum, yum!”

“Oh dear, I’m afraid I’m all out of bear tongues and candied eyeballs,” said Dorro, inching towards the door. “Sadly, I’m late for an appointment—can we converse later? I don’t know when I’ve had so much fun ….”

The bookmaster grabbed Amos’ sleeve took a quick step, but not before the biggest goblin leapt to block their path.

“You ain’t going anywhere!”

Amos yelped again, “I ain’t the cook—that one is! Lemme go, mates.”

Annoyed by his confederate, Dorro blurted out, “We’re late for an important meeting, my good fellow and—.”

It was at that moment when one of the beasties banged Dorro on the head, followed a heartbeat later by Amos and rendering both unconscious.

The three goblins swooped up their prizes and snuck out the hole in the back of the storeroom, heading to the woods and thence to their caves in the mountains.

As they ran, they sang and whistled with delight.

 

We got a fresh cook!

We got a new cook!

He’ll make us green slime cookies.

And sweeties filled with gook!”

 

We got a new feller

Who’s blood runs red ‘n’ yeller!

He’ll make us cakes ‘n’ pies,

or he we cuts him ‘til he dies!

[]Seizure

“I’m sorry, Mr. Shoe, but we are assuming control of the library—by rights of forfeiture.”

Hamment Shugfoot stood haughtily in the library, looking smug and confident, while Bedminster Shoe tried to fathom what was happening.

“That’s illegal seizure, Mr. Shugfoot! How dare you? The village of Thimble Down has no right to this property—it’s owned by Mr. Dorro and run by myself per his explicit instructions.”

“I have a writ signed by the Mayor himself declaring the library as part of Dorro’s criminal liability for murder.”

Hamment smiled in that oily way he was so good at.

“You will vacate the premises until further notice. And, by the way, the Mayor has decreed that your little school will close, as well. It’s not profitable for the good folk of the village.”

Bedminster’s eyes nearly leapt out of his head. He espied Will and Cheeryup in the gallery, peering over the rail at the tense standoff and beckoned them. He grabbed a piece of foolscap and scrawled a quick note, writing a single name on the outside.

“Deliver this immediately, children. This is a crisis!”

“You can call in whatever troops you like, Mr. Shoe, but as of this moment the library will be remanded to the custody of the village of Thimble Down, under the auspices of the Mayor and, as the official attorney thereof, me.

He again smiled in that smarmy way of his.

“Now—get out.”

 

  • * *

 

The next hour was one of pandemonium, as figures dashed to and fro from the library in alarm and rancor. Sheriff Forgo was among the first to arrive, bellowing and flailing his arms in anger in front of the porch.

“Who the hell ordered this—the Mayor? I won’t allow it in my town.”

“You have no choice in the matter, Forgo.”

“Who’s gonna stop me, you slick weasel?” The Sheriff brandished his fearsome fist, not for the first time. “You?”

“No.” Hamment smiled. “They are.”

At that, a half dozen big Halflings emerged from the entrance. Forgo recognized them immediately; they were ruffians from Fell’s Corner, all nasty pieces of work.

“What’s going on here, Shugfoot?”

“The Mayor, in his infinite wisdom, foresaw your disloyalty in this matter and thereby formed a militia to protect the library from outside meddling. They are official servants of Thimble Down who report directly to the Mayor. I would advise you to keep your distance.”

Forgo looked at the rabble and knew even he couldn’t tangle with these goons. “This isn’t over, Hamment—not by a long shot.”

The lawyer began examining his fingernails distractedly. “Who knows, Sheriff? Maybe the Mayor will change his mind if business picks up at the taverns and businesses he has vested interests in. Anything’s possible.”

“You are pond scum, Shugfoot.”

As much as he wanted to slug the barrister, Forgo knew he was defeated and stomped off in disgust.

In his place came the figure of Darwinna Thrashrack, who was simply livid, despite looking smashing in a teal winter ensemble with a wool collar and matching cuffs and hat. She walked right up to her colleague at Shugfoot, Thrashrack & Grumbleoaf, standing only inches away.

“Hamment, have you lost your senses?” She stared at him with her blazing green eyes. “This is illegal, underhanded, and purely vile—even for you.”

“Darling Darwinna, this is just business. Don’t be so petulant—I’m just doing my job,” purred Shugfoot. “The library is a valuable asset for the community, but is being wasted by a Halfling who is a criminal. We’re thinking of the fine folk of the village in this matter; it’s for the greater good.”

“Oh Hamment—you are such a clever fellow.”

The lady lawyer stepped even closer to her colleague, a subtle hint of allure in her eyes as she put her hands tenderly on his forearms.

It was at this point Darwinna dug her fingernails through his fur-lined jacket into the flesh of his arm, tighter than a vise, to the point where Shugfoot turned white and nearly screamed.

“But if you think I’m going to let you commit this evil crime, you half-wit, you’re sadly mistaken. I will use every tool at my disposal to destroy you and the Mayor. Are we clear … darling?”

Shugfoot didn’t reply, largely because he was about to lose consciousness, but then Darwinna Thrashrack retracted her talons and departed.

The attorney drew his first breath in about a minute, crying out in pain and looking to see if she broke the skin on either arm. This was not the way he hoped this would play out. Hamment saw the goons standing behind him, smirking.

“You’re not paid to gawk, you animals!” he screamed. “Get back to protecting the library—that is if you want to get paid!”

In a huff, Hamment Shugfoot stomped off, the triumph turning in a personal fiasco.

What just happened here? He wondered to himself distractedly. Darwinna was supposed to rush into my arms—not break them!”

[]The Chamber

The first thing Dorro noticed was the stench. It was a putrid combination of sweat, sooty smoke, mold, and rotting things that jarred him awake.

He opened his eyes—or at least thought he did—but was surrounded by darkness. Then there was the pain; a throbbing ache in the back of his head.

The bookmaster was disoriented and wondered what fresh Hell he’d been sent to. It slowly came filtering back … the storeroom, the goblins, and then blackness. From deep inside the pit of his stomach, churning anxiety gripped Dorro as he realized he was now a prisoner.

“Are ya awake, my sleeping pretty?” There was a movement in the darkness. “Ah, yer stirring. Good—time for work! I already put yer pal in the slave chambers.”

Dorro felt himself being hauled to his feet by powerful hands. He tried to take a step, but then wobbled and fell over.

“Right, we did give a smack on the head, didn’t we? Shame about that.”

The hands—leather paws, more like it—grabbed his head and pulled it backward. Dorro felt some kind of hot, fetid broth being poured down his throat and gagged reflexively. He choked down the rest, trying to find his breath.

“There, good as new!” said the voice in the dark. “That’s our special grog. Nuthin’ like it—mother’s milk to us. You’ll be feeling fresh as a daisy in no time.”

The flavor was disgusting, a dark-berry taste with what must be absurdly high levels of alcohol; it burned his throat to the point of nausea. Still, Dorro noted, he felt a tingling in his toes and feet, as the hot brew sped through his body, and remarkably, his head felt clearer and sharper. The pain in his head lessened and he began to sense flickering light in the distance.

“Where am I?” he gasped.

“You’re here, ya fool,” laughed the hideous-sounding voice. “Home, sweet, home—the caves of the Bones ‘n’ Blood clan, the fiercest fighters in all the mountains. And yer our new cook.”

“You aren’t going to kill me?”

“Har! Sure, we might! But only if you don’t make our stomachs happy.”

There was some guttural barking to their right, as the creature dragged Dorro towards the light of torches and a central fire pit.

The two goblins began conversing in their harsh language, reminding him of the exchanges between Grimble and Braâch. He wished Grimble were there right now—he’d know how to save Dorro; sadly, the bookmaster’s dear goblin friend was perhaps two hundred miles away in a distant village of elves. He felt a sob welling up, but stifled it.

Dorro looked upward as the outline of the cave came into focus. The smoke from the fires wafted up through the rocks, presumably to some distant point above where it vented into the open air. Elsewhere, he noticed stalactites and stalagmites protruding from the rock, as well as chasms that dropped to who knows where. The Halfling didn’t want to find out.

“You’ll be wanting to watch your step, little mouse,” snarled the goblin, as if reading his mind. “We’ve lost a few of your kind to misplaced footfalls before, as well as a few others who leapt to their doom for some stupid reason. Can’t imagine why—our cave is one of the nicest in all goblin-kind.”

“How long will you keep me here?”

The orkus again croaked in pleasure, as if Dorro was the funniest fellow in history.

“Why fer-ever—you belong to us now! What part o’ that ain’t clear?”

As they moved closer to the fire, Dorro saw the goblin for the first time; this was the first creature he’d spoken to in the storeroom, a muscly brute with an uncannily good grasp of the Halfling tongue and a good, if bizarre, sense of humor and irony. He laughed at whatever Dorro did, as if he were a clumsy toddler learning to walk.

“You’ll work until you drop—that’s the way here. There are others and you can stay with them during your rests. Otherwise, you’ll wait for us to bring in meat we capture or steal; you turn it into something that we like. We’re partial to eels, rats, foxes, ’n’ possum. Understand?”

“Otherwise, what?”

“Otherwise, we don’t needs ya and we gets rid of ya, half-witted Halfling.”

The enormity of Dorro’s predicament dawned upon him. He was truly at the lowest ebb of his entire life, one that made the horrors of Fog Vale seem like a holiday camp.

“Now, since yer the new feller, you can go to the cook’s chamber and rest up. But soon enough, you’ll be fryin’ up fresh stoat flesh for us and it better be good. For yer sake.”

The goblin grabbed Dorro’s arm and led him into the dark, the bookmaster stumbling in a daze through smoke and flickering flames that danced on the cave walls. He shoved him through an opening whereupon Dorro promptly banged his forehead on a low ceiling.

“Oh yeah—duck!” teased the creature as it loped into the blackness.

More hands tugged at his sleeve, but these weren’t rough. He realized they belonged to Halflings, many of whom offered soft words of encouragement as he curled into a ball and began shaking uncontrollably, fear finally getting the better of him.

“It’s alright, mate—gets more tolerable after a while,” said a male voice. “It ain’t like home, but we’re alive. Just don’t try to escape; they don’t like that. We’ll tell the other one when he awakes.”

He pointed to a curled up figure on the hard ground, snoring away blissfully. It was Amos, Dorro knew.

A woman’s voice chimed in.

“‘Tis true. You may think you can sneak out, but some have tried and you don’t want to know what happens when they got caught. It’s better to say here, luv, and do your chores. The beasties mostly leave us alone so long as we cook.”

A third fellow added, “I miss seeing the skies and listening to the birds. The only thing you won’t get used to is the sight of the goblins eating their supper—they eat everything, bones ‘n’ all. As long as we get the fur and scales off, they’re happy as magpies and leave us be.”

Another voice chimed in, “Say … you ain’t from Thimble Down, are ye?”

Dorro sat up, “Yes! Yes, I am! Who said that?”

“Just me—I once lived there and thought you looked familiar. I was Otis Jones, from Fell’s Corner. You’re that fancy librarian feller, ain’t ye?”

“Yes, I’m Mr. Dorro—you know me?”

The bookmaster grabbed the Halfling’s hand and clasped it tightly, happier to see him than almost anyone else in his entire life. “Thank you for remembering me. You don’t know what it means, really!”

“Glad to see you, too, sir—a friendly face as it were,” said Jones. “But we need to be settling down soon. The goblins like us to be quiet after a spell, so they can sleep before their daily hunts. Don’t go ambling off by yerself or nuthin’. You don’t want them to catch you in the caverns alone. It wouldn’t go well for you if they did.”

Dorro gulped at the thought.

[]Clues

“Look Wyll—Mr. Shoe gave this box to me!”

Cheeryup was excited and tugged on her friend’s sleeve. They were holed up in her toasty kitchen, eating blueberry muffins her mother had baked that morning, staving off the cold weather outdoors.

“Pay attention and stop stuffing your mouth for one single moment!”

“Sawrry, Cheer-yup,” mumbled the boy, his mouth filled with baked blueberry goodness.

“Mr. Shoe stole a few boxes from the archives before he was evicted from the library yesterday. He thought there might be some useful information in here, so let’s get busy. And stop eating!”

“Sawrry….

“Don’t apologize—just start reading, you goose.”

Cheeryup opened the first folio and started looking at ancient letters, some in familiar Halfling and others in incomprehensible ancient script of Havling. The two worked for an hour until Wyll piped up.

“Look! I found something in our language about the heartwood. It’s dated from about ninety years ago.”

The slight fellow began to read.

 

[Philosophical Observations
on the Nature of the Heartwood]

 

[by A. Mumpfort
scribe, Thimble Down]

 

The Heartwood is a wondrous thing in our parts, perhaps a bit of legend, but very much alive in the Great Wood near Thimble Downe.

I have heard rumors of it from the local folk in this village, but often without specifics. Sometimes you’ll find Folke in the taverns toast each other’s health, uttering, “To the Heartwood, good sir!” or some such.

Similarly, if a new mother carries her Wee Bairn into town, another mother might stop and offer a blessing such as “May she be protected always by thy Heartwood.”

As I’m new to this hamlet, I’ve inquired often about the strange word—heartwood?—but to little avail. Often, the townslings just titter, as if my question bespeaks of a naiveté or Sheer Foolishness.

Other times, I’ve heard a fellow boast, ‘T’was out in the Great Wood today and espied the Heartwood hisself,’ to which he gets Clapped on the back and heartily congratulated.

So is the Heartwood a sprite, a magical Pixie, or some such? Are there Spirits in the Great Wood, specifically concentrated around the Meeting Tree, that special place of the Halflings.

‘Ere three days ago, I spoke with a traveling merchant who referenced the Heartwood more as an object than a personage. He claimed it was the heart of the Great Wood that sometimes takes on the form of a Halfling, as well as that of Wilde Animal, be it owl, fox, or bear. I fear it a Myth, but a popular one.

Still, I am Curious—what if there is a being in the Woods?

If so, I should very much like to spy it for Myself.

 

[—A. Mumfort
June 17, 1632, A.B.]

 

  • * *

 

“That’s marvelous, Wyll! A real clue,” said Cheeryup excitedly.

“But what does it have to do with Dalbo Dall? Do you think he knew what the heartwood really was?”

Cheeryup knitted her brows. “That’s a good question. He was full of secrets and confided some of them in Minty. And I don’t know how any of it will help Mr. Dorro—maybe we’re barking up the wrong tree.”

The boy laughed at his friend’s unintentional pun. “If only we could get back into the library and dig deeper in the archives ….”

“That’s brilliant, Wyll!”

“I know that look, Cheery—you mean to get us into trouble again!” He nervously picked up a muffin and nibbled around the edges. “The library is protected by goons from Fell’s Corner and there’s no way we could get in.”

“Couldn’t we? We’ve broken in there a hundred times before and can do it again.”

“I doan wanna git in inny moor truffle,” said Wyll, his mouth overflowing with cakey muffin bits and warm, squishy blueberries.

“Sorry Wyll—you know truffle is my middle name!”

 

  • * *

 

The first few days in the cave of the Bones ‘n’ Blood clan were among the very darkest of Dorro’s life.

Among other things, the work was backbreaking and revolting. Using a rusty knife, the bookmaster had to roughly chop up poor, dead animals—stoats, squirrels, rats, and more—and cook them in pots of boiling water or spit them over an open, sooty fire. The smells were enough to make him sick and there was no place to wash himself.

For a tidy fellow like Dorro, this was a living nightmare. Soon enough, he followed what the others did and tried to survive.

Otis Jones was a hard worker and became his role model. Coming from the rank neighborhood of Fell’s Corner, Otis already knew life could be brutal, but Dorro was from gentler stock and this was a shock to his system. He even thought about stepping off the edge of a chasm, but realized that wasn’t the Winderiver way. His life had taken a harsh turn, but it was incumbent upon him to find a solution—or an escape route. Fortunately, he didn’t have to wait long.

It turned out that Otis also knew Amos Pinchbottle from Fell’s Corner and the rogues found solace in each other’s company.

“Oy, ain’t it grand that ol’ Jonesy is ‘ere with us, Mr. Windy,” giggled Amos, the same dashed fool he ever was. “Sure, this ain’t the posh life, but me ‘n’ Otis will figger a way out. Just you wait an’ see.”

“I wish I could share your optimism, Amos. I have a bleaker view.”

The Thimble Downer knitted his bushy eyebrows and looked at Dorro with confusion, but then laughed in his typical manner.

“I don’t ‘zactly know what this here ‘optimism’ is, but sure as sheep, if I had any, I’d share it wit’ ya, Windy—us being great pals ‘n’ all.”

For the first time in days, the bookmaster actually smiled. The scofflaw from Fell’s Corner may be a fool and a deadbeat, but his uncannily happy outlook on life brightened the moment, even inadvertently.

He put his hand on Amos’ shoulder and added, “I know you’d share it if you could. You’ve a good heart, Amos Pinchbottle.”

“Y’know, me mum always said the same thing—at least, after she smacked me on the head, which was about every other day!”

The fellow laughed again and walked off to get some fresh kill to prepare for the goblins.

After weeks of cooking for the goblins, day in ‘n’ day out, the Halflings heard a disturbance outside their private cavern—screams and shouts of terrified goblins. One of the orkus ran to the mouth of their cavern and whispered: “They’re back—the fell creatures of the forest. And it’s all yer faults! They kill us so they can make you their own slaves. But not if I kills ya first ….”

The goblin stooped as he entered and the Halflings saw a glint of metal. The monster was coming to slay them and they had no way to defend themselves. Dorro saw his opportunity—he’d fought orkus before and wasn’t afraid of them, not one bit (well, maybe a little, if truth be told). If this was his moment to die, it would be more than prudent, he figured, to make it quick.

“For Thimble Down!” he bellowed as he flew at the goblin, who was shocked that any of the subservient Halflings would do anything but lie down and let him drain their lifeblood.

Dorro tackled the creature in the midriff and the two tumbled into the main chamber, tussling and rolling.

“Little maggot—you’ll be the first to die!” screamed the goblin, striking Dorro in the face with his scaly fist and sending him sprawling.

The bookmaster looked up and saw the monster coming at him slowly, warily, knowing that this was a fierce little Halfling unlike the others. This one pulled a knife from his belt and crept closer while Dorro squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for the death blow.

Thud!

The bookmaster blinked his eyes a few times and looked up. Without reason, he saw the goblin crumpled on the ground, a mass of twisted limbs and evidently stone dead.

“Wait, what, who?…”

Before Dorro Fox Winderiver could fully form a thought in the midst of the battle and mayhem all around him, a rough canvas bag was dropped over his head, enveloping him in blackness. He vaguely remembered being carried off in the dark, captive of yet some new strange master.

Then consciousness left him altogether.

[]A House in the Woods

For the fourth time in less than a week, Dorro Fox Winderiver found himself in a strange, uncomfortable place.

There had been the Long Ride—the cold, lonely journey to penal servitude—followed by weeks in Fog Vale, a place of cruelty and injustice. Dorro was beginning to find a place in the dreadful camp when he was kidnapped by goblins and taken to their caves in the Grey Mountains, now a prisoner of a new kind.

Yet again, Dorro’s world was flipped askew when something attacked the orkus and he was kidnapped.

Two legs, yes. Two arms still attached? No major injuries? His head fuzzy, Dorro awoke on a straw bed and stretched out. Moreover, he was clean—he had been bathed while asleep.

Good! Now where am I?

The bookmaster opened his eyes and tried to focus on his surroundings. He was in a cavern of some sort, but a rather homey one. There were nicely appointed touches like rugs and tables and such, but on a terrific scale.

Am I in the home of Men-folk? he wondered. If so, they are extremely large ones. Good gracious!

He swung his feet off the bed—really a pile of straw—and wriggled his way to the floor. Dorro felt he was walking in a dream.

Or maybe I’m dead? That would make some sense. Is this what happens when we die … we go to a world of large Men?

He looked about and saw something more perplexing.

Look at those books! They’re enormous!

Indeed there was a shelf of fine leather-bound volumes, ones with titles he’d never heard of, such as The Ancient Philosophies of Mildred Pilsnoy the Younger, and another titled Talons & Claws: A Scientific Treatise Concerning Birds that Kill.

Dorro was fascinated and knew that whoever lived here was intelligent and possessed the power of reason—something in short supply even within Thimble Down.

Walking throughout the cavernous space, the bookmaster discovered adjoining chambers that were equally massive and filled with large artifacts and furnishings, including a wall map of the Grey Mountains and what appeared to be huge beds or divans.

He grew hungry after a spell and was beginning to feel faint when he returned to the first chamber and found a plate of edibles on the floor, quite near his straw bed; he must have walked right past it.

Dorro devoured a few odd bits of strong cheese, apples, and nuts—he was even more delighted to find a large vessel filled with dark, garnet-colored wine. He figured it was merely a thimble to the large creatures, but to him it was a vast tureen … and quite delicious, even by his own discerning palate.

Sated and perhaps a little tipsy, the Halfling climbed back on the straw bedding and fell back to slumber, happier than he’d felt in weeks.

Dorro’s sleep was sweet and dreamless.

 

  • * *

 

“Tut, tut, little fellow! Wait up, sleepy bumpkin.”

Dorro’s eyelids fluttered open as he bolted upright. “Who said that? Hello?”

“Why, I did, small mouse. Who do you think is talking?”

The Thimble Downer scrambled off his bed and spun around—he still couldn’t see the source of this deep, sonorous voice.

“Am I dead? If so, you can just tell me. I expect I am dead; that would make the most sense.”

“You are a bother for a chap who thinks he’s dead.”

The huge voice laughed, shaking the floor Dorro stood upon. “I see you’ve had something to nibble on. Is there anything else I can get you, shortbread?”

The bookmaster pulled up indignantly. “You know, I’m rather tall for a Halfling. I’m five-foot tall!”

There was more mirth from above.

“Oh I see—you’re a giant of the species. My apologies.”

“Why can’t you come out of hiding, Mr. Mystery? I would like to see whom I’m addressing.”

Dorro felt this wasn’t an unreasonable request.

“Mister? Good gracious, you are an amusing little-big Halfling, as that’s who I guess your kind are. And my dear, I’m not hiding—in fact, I’m sitting right behind you.”

At that, Dorro heard a shuffling sound—more of a boom, really—and spun around. Something that he thought was a large piece of furniture began to move and realized that two of the huge table legs were real legs and the tablecloth was the hem of a rough skirt.

He looked up and saw a very broad, round face staring down at him, one at least fifteen feet higher than he. Dorro thought very quickly and made a prudent decision—one of unconditional surrender.

“My dear lady, how could I have been so foolish?” he said with the utmost deprecation. “My ears must have been playing tricks on me, as you are clearly a most charming and beautiful creature, and with such a melodic voice, too.”

“Hah!” snorted the giantess. “You are a flatterer, too. But pray—continue ….”

“I simply wasn’t expecting to be in the presence of such an enchanting one such as you, and highly educated, too. Your collection of books is most impressive!”

“You read?”

“Indeed, madam—I am none other than Dorro Fox Winderiver, bookmaster of Thimble Down, a village to the distant West. Books are my passion.”

The giantess smiled again. “A learned Halfling. I am surprised; the ones we usually rescue are rather rough and uncouth—simple country folk who are happy to be free of their goblin slavemasters, but otherwise not offering anything of great philosophical value.”

Dorro was more than perplexed by this conversation. Certainly, he’d had many odd and downright weird encounters in the past few years, but at the moment, he was discoursing with a lady giant and an educated one at that.

“My lady, how is it that you come to be here? I was a prisoner of the horrible orkus, if only for a few weeks until you rescued me. Am I your prisoner now?”

The walls verily shook from the woman’s laughter. “Oh, you do amuse me, Mister did you say Dor-Fox-o-River?”

“Dorro will suffice for now. It’s easily confused by strangers,” replied the bookmaster with his customary conceits.

“Dorro, eh? So be it. As to your question, my good fellow, you are not my prisoner. I plucked you from the others because you looked different. I don’t know what it was, but I thought to myself, ‘Saoirse, this chap looks fresh to Fog Vale and might have a good tale or two to share.’ You see, my son and I live here alone and we’re always happy to hear a new story. Ours is a lonely life.”

“My head is spinning with questions, though you did give me one answer. Your name is Saoirse. And your son is—?”

“Truckulus. He’s out in the woods foraging for our supper and should return anon.”

She paused. “I’m actually not telling the truth—really, he’s peeved that I brought you to our home. Truckulus is very protective of me and perhaps a little jealous. He’s of a sullen disposition, no doubt related to our solitary life. I think he regards you as competition for his mother’s attention, which of course is ridiculous. The little fool is my world, my universe; I love him without reservation. Do fledgling man-childs among your species act so rashly?”

Dorro thought of his nephew Wyll Underfoot for an instant and smiled, “Indeed they do! I’m sure our kinds have much in common. Can I ask why you rescued me?”

“First I must sit, Mr. Dorro. I’m still weary after the raid.”

The giantess Saoirse dropped her bulk onto a wood-backed chair, causing it to groan under her weight, which the Halfling estimated to be twenty-five stone or more. Dorro could see her more fully now—she was not, as one might expect, an over-sized brute, but instead a perfectly nice looking lady, with brown hair, a broad face and nose, broad shoulders, and a kindly smile.

Conversely, the Halfling decided that he wouldn’t like to see her angry—that would be frightful.

“Now, you have many questions. Come sit up here with me where can talk face to face.”

Saoirse reached over and gingerly picked the bookmaster up, much to his terror—he shrieked, but she was gentle enough and bade him sit on a wooden box that held the table salt.

“You see, Dorro, the orkus live in the same mountain range we do, though we stay on the forested side and they, the rocky scree and dark, smoky caverns below. We try to stay out of each other’s way, but sometimes we bump heads, so to speak.”

“Goblins are very territorial, are they not? I can’t imagine they willingly share the land with you.”

“You know something of our scaly friends? I’m impressed. Certainly, they’d like us dead or gone—or both—but we giants are made of sterner stuff and they would have a great deal of trouble trying to oust us.”

She brushed her hair back casually.

“For our part, we detest their internment of your Halflings, even if the ones in Fog Vale are felons and criminals. When the spirit moves us, we spring a raid on their caves and retrieve as many as we can—admittedly, for a bit of sport and excitement. Most we send back to the farm at Fog Vale, but you looked interesting enough to talk to and, in truth, you are quite amusing, Dorro.”

“Of course, if you want to return to the penal farm, I shall take you, but I’m hoping you’ll stay here for at least a little while. Our lives are terribly dreary and your fresh company would be welcome.”

Again, Dorro did some quick calculations, as not to incur the wrath of this giantess. “Why of course, dear lady, I shall be happy to stay on as your guest for a spell.”

“Good. Now, let me tell you about the attack as I make us some tea. This one was particularly gruesome and bloody ….”

[]Like Mice in the Dark

Sheriff Forgo couldn’t believe how quickly things were spiraling out of control. The Mayor and his dogs Osgood Thrip and Hamment Shugfoot had in essence rewritten the laws of their fair village and were now acting with impunity to pillory the estate of Dorro Fox Winderiver.

In absentia.

Once again, the Mayor—acting as head magistrate—communed a hearing at the Hanging Stoat and, on this night, the tavern was filled to capacity with villagers looking for gossip, entertainment, and as many ales as they could quaff down in an hour or two. He was particularly unhappy on this evening, as his nose remained swollen and hugely red from the ceramic mug someone had heaved his way last time.

“Call to order! Call to order!” he whined while banging the gavel—to add insult, someone in the back shouted “The Mayor stinks!” to the delight of the crowd.

Darwinna Thrashrack, decked out in cozy pink winter wear and an ermine stole about her neck, sat moodily at a table, serving in her role as the legal representative of Dorro’s estate. At the next table was Shugfoot and Thrip, both of them grinning like ferrets on the prowl.

“We’re gathered today,” continued the Mayor, “to discuss certain legal provisos related to the Winderiver estate.”

“Objection, your honor!” cut in Darwinna, her eyes afire. “There are no legal provisos related to his estate—everything is in full legal compliance. Why are we here?”

The Mayor shot Osgood Thrip a quick glance. “Perhaps you’re not aware, counselor, that there have been recent changes in the laws of Thimble Down as pertaining to the right of criminals to own property.”

“That’s absurd, my lord,” she shot back. “There are no laws regarding this on the books.”

“If I may,” said Hamment Shugfoot, “I don’t think my esteemed colleague yet knows about the new enacted addendum passed last night—Section 54c—within our local statutes. It notes that a criminal convicted and exiled from the village cannot own property or assets.”

Darwinna was horrified, but leapt on the opportunity: “Fine—then, as of last night, convicts cannot own property. That has nothing to do with Mr. Dorro, who was convicted over a month ago.”

“Except …” said the Mayor.

“Except what?”

Hamment chimed in again.

“Except, Barrister Thrashrack, that the new law was created to be retroactive to the first day of the New Borgonian Year, starting January 1st. Which means Mr. Dorro is indeed culpable under this new ruling.”

“That’s illegal!” shouted a voice so loud it shook the Hanging Stoat to its foundation.

The Mayor grabbed his gavel and banged it five times in pure anger.

“How dare you, Sheriff Forgo, question the merits of our legal system? I could have you gaoled for contempt!”

“Sit Forgo,” said Darwinna, trying to stay calm. “My lord, the Sheriff’s outburst—though unwise—does have some weight. This ruling seems arbitrary and without legal merit.”

At this the Mayor smiled. “Well, barrister, if you’d like to contest it, you may file a legal complaint and put it on a referendum before the villagers of Thimble Down in the next election.”

“But—” the attorney exhaled in defeat. “… that’s two years away. Dorro’s estate could be whittled down to nothing in that time. It’s not fair!”

“Sadly, Barrister Thrashrack, it is now the law and we must follow due process,” said the Mayor stone faced.

“You may file your complaint, but as of this minute, the estate of Dorro Fox Winderiver is forfeit and property of the village of Thimble Down. We officially shall seize his library and hillock-home—the Perch—all for the betterment of our townsfolk.

Darwinna raged in fury, “You can’t take his home—his heir and nephew still lives there!”

“It has already been decided, young lady. The magistrate has spoken!”

The Mayor banged his gavel again, but it was buried in the roar of the villagers erupting into pandemonium.

Many knew this was a heinously illegal act, but others thought it was fine that the high and mighty Dorro Fox Winderiver was brought low and shamed. Chairs were tossed and fists were thrown—the Sheriff and his deputy Gadget Pinkle were in the thick of it, trying to restore order, while Darwinna Thrashrack gathered her papers and bustled out the door. Her mind was reeling.

This won’t be the end of things, Mr. Mayor. I will have my legal revenge upon you and your cronies Thrip and – she gasped – Hamment , whom I never thought would stoop so low. I will make your restitution in this matter particularly painful, Barrister Shugfoot.

The only salvation in this horrific moment was another heavy tankard of beer that someone tossed high over the crowd, cracking upon Hamment Shugfoot’s well-coifed head. No one knew who threw it, but some thought it was a fellow that looked much like the quiet, mild-mannered Bedminster Shoe.

Of course, no one believed that for a second.

 

  • * *

 

Two figures stole through the frigid darkness towards the library. They scarpered up a ladder they’d hidden earlier and edged along a bit of protruding timber that marked the second floor. They were twenty feet off the ground—a dangerous height—and if one of them slipped, death could be instantaneous. But nothing would deter these two shadows.

“Careful, Wyll!” Cheeryup wasn’t sure this was such a great idea after all. One bit of ice and one or both of them could fall.

“You worry about yourself—I’m a regular billygoat, I am,” boast the twelve-year-old boy.

At that moment, Wyll missed a footfall and nearly dropped, but grabbed a bit of windowsill and managed to stay up.

“Some billygoat, Wyll!—I said, be careful.” Cheeryup was getting angry, but reached for the latch of the window and it swung up. Both knew it had been broken for years. “Come now, push me up.”

Wyll grabbed a bit of his friend’s leg and hoisted her as much as he could as Cheeryup scrabbled for a hold. A bit of fumbling and she was in like a cat; turning fast, the thin girl spun around and grabbed the boy’s hand and pulled him in as well. The friends sat in the darkness of the gallery, gasping for air and knowing the hard part was just beginning.

Speaking as quietly as possibly, just the merest hair above silence, Cheeryup whispered into Wyll’s ear, “There’s probably one or two of the Mayor’s ruffians downstairs. Every footstep will echo throughout the library. We have to be completely silent and invisible.”

The boy just nodded mutely.

With moonlight to guide them, the two crept across the gallery towards an archive of books and scrolls. If Bedminster Shoe knew what they were doing, he would have locked them both in the Perch, but he was across town at the Hanging Stoat, hearing the dastardly plans of the Mayor and Osgood Thrip.

“Here! Look in these boxes.”

Like mice in the dark, Wyll and Cheeryup began opening wooden boxes carrying vintage documents and scrolls.

“What are we lookin’ for?” begged the boy.

“I don’t know—just make sure it’s about the Great Wood.”

“But I can’t see nuthin’

Seconds later, Cheeryup struck a matching, alighting a candle taper, just enough to allow them to read a few words here and there.

An hour elapsed as the younglings leafed through various folios, always mindful not to make more noise than necessary. Cheeryup was sure she’d find something, but it was Wyll who made the discovery.

Gently elbowing his friend, the boy passed a page to her, an ancient piece of vellum. The girl scanned it until Wyll pointed out a faint word on the page: Heartwood.

Cheeryup’s eyes opened wide with excitement and even more so when he handed her a second page; it seemed that the folio he was holding had a trove of useful pages. She knew it was time to cut and run, but they froze at a new sound in the darkness. It was a creaking noise, like that a ladder would make if someone put weight on it.

There it was again!

Both children broke into cold sweats and Cheeryup was alert enough to blow out the candle.

“Hullo, me luvlies,” said a rotten, malevolent voice. “Havin’ a nice time up ‘ere? Yer Uncle Bert’s come to take you to meet the boss!”

“Run, Wyll!”

The two leapt up, and dashed towards the window. Cheeryup squirmed through and looked back for her partner in crime. There, standing near the folio, was the muscly brute holding Wyll by the collar.

“Ya dint think ol’ Bert was so quick, didja? Why, I won the Harvest Festival running race three years in a row as a lad—fast as a rabbit, me mum always used to say. It’s always helped me outrun that tub Sheriff Forgo in me middle-age.”

At that, the ruffian burst out guffawing, as Cheeryup saw there was no point to running and crawled back inside.

“Don’t hurt him—he’s just a boy!”

“Awww, the lil’ urchin can take a bit o’ the rough stuff. My pappy used to slap me around a bit and did me worlds o’ good. Makes me tear up just thinkin’ about it,” sniffed the goon.

“I agree, Mr. Bert—you can never have too much of the rough stuff,” at which she delivered a stunningly painful kick to his shin.

The big Halfling yelped in pain and tried to double his grip on Wyll, but the thin wisp of a girl landed a second kick to his other knee, one that bent Bert in half and caused him to let go.

Ooof!

“Run, Wyll, quick! Down the ladder!”

They started down, but saw another bully headed up already.

“Grab ‘em, Wilko!” bellowed Bert from the gallery, still bent in agony. But his time Wyll took action and simply let go, falling like a sixty-pound bag of sand on the ruffian’s head, sending Wilko sprawling on the ground.

Quick as mice, Wyll and Cheeryup sprinted to the library entrance and flew out the doorway in the cold winter’s night. They ran and ran until breathlessly stealing into the Tunbridge’s kitchen, as Cheeryup’s mother was just pulling a fresh tray of raisin muffins from the oven.

“Perfect timing, you two. Here, have something to eat. Where have you two rascals been anyway?”

Wyll and Cheeryup looked at each other furtively.

“Oh—just larking about, Mother. Playing games in the snow,” lied the girl.

The boy smiled back but then grinned even broader. As Cheeryup hung up her jacket, Wyll noticed her quickly sliding the folio of antique letters behind a decorative wooden chest.

The break-in had been a success!

[]Mother and Son

“Dorro, finished your tea? It’s too lovely out to stay cooped indoors like hens. Let’s go for an amble and I’ll tell you more about the raid. It was quite a soiree.”

Saoirse wrapped the bookmaster in a swatch of wool and put him in an open basket, which she slung around her neck.

Stepping into the snowy expanse outside her house, Dorro peeked back and saw her house as a conglomeration of wood, boulders, and earthen, but clever arranged to be a home with windows and a chimney protruding out of the earth-clad roof.

Fit for a giant, he mused.

“Now, what was I saying? Oh yes—the attack.”

Dorro interrupted, “This might be a silly question, but how did you fit into the goblins’ tunnels? They seemed quite cramped.”

“The good thing about orkus is that although they can be clever at times, they’re also slow learners. You would have thought by now they’d have realized that there’s a large tunnel into their warren on the North side, but seem to forget every month or two.”

“By this route, Truckulus and I creep in while the beasties are at rest—usually towards dawn when they’re done hunting and plundering for the night. Even their guards fall asleep.”

“That does make things easier, doesn’t it?”

“Indeed. Last night, Trucky and I waited in our customary spot until we spied the guard crawl back in the mouth of the tunnel and nod off. We waited another hour until we noticed the first glimmer of dawn over the snow-capped mountains. That was our cue.”

Dorro was full of questions, as well as mildly nauseous from being jostled about in the basket. “Were you armed?”

“Yes of course, you little titmouse. You don’t walk into an orkus nest with a plate of biscuits! I had my hammer and short blade, while the boy had his axe and a net. We don’t love to fight but it’s good exercise for us folks with big bones.”

It seemed to Dorro that the she-giantess was describing a lovely game of lawn tennis rather than a violent military expedition.

“Once the gobblers had retreated, we crept into the tunnel—despite our size, we can be quite stealthy if we like.”

Saoirse was enjoying the tale, whipping her hair back for dramatic emphasis. Even with the cold, she only wore her rough canvas dress, and seemed to love the frigid mountain weather.

“Of course that didn’t last long. One of the nippers awoke as we passed and emitted a horrible warning cry—well, at least until I whacked the fiend with my hammer. He didn’t say much after that.” She winked at Dorro for theatrical effect.

“Did the other creatures hear the screech?”

“Hah! Surely they did and within moments, buckets of the beasts were streaming down the tunnel. You might think this was dangerous, but you’ve never seen a giant in a battle. It’s a thing to see.”

The Halfling was beginning to wonder if Saoirse was completely sane or not, but decided not to press the issue. After all, he’d already met Malachite Molly a few months earlier and knew about that unusual breed of ladies who loved battle and blood and all that muck.

Dorro, of course, preferred a quiet afternoon at home, reading a good yarn or puttering about in the garden, though he himself had killed a ferocious goblin or two in the Battle of the Burrows last fall.

“Apparently you were triumphant, my good lady!”

“Indeed we were. With Truckulus chopping heads and myself hammering foes, we tore into the enemy with full battle-lust upon us.” Saoirse eyes glistened at the memory. “Unfortunately, we lost count after fifty dead goblins apiece.”

“Were you wounded?” asked Dorro, trying to keep the conversation moving and hoping he wouldn’t annoy her in any way.

“Oh, the little buggers pinged us with a few arrows and sword cuts, but giant skin is like thick stone—nothing penetrates more than a scratch. It feels like irritating flea bites to us.”

“We finally broke into the main chamber and the head goblin came out to challenge us, a new feller named Böckram. Big, nasty looking gent. Truck wanted a go at him, but I reminded him it was mummy’s turn, so I squared off with the brute.”

“Sounds terrifying.”

“Terrifying?” mocked Saoirse. “Terrifyingly fun, you mean! Böckram gave me a couple of reasonably competent jabs, I admit, but I caught him on the side of the head with my hammer and kicked him into the gut. The monster went down, but quick as a bird, leapt on my back and tried to slit my throat with a knife. Can you imagine the nerve?”

Dorro swallowed. “Ermmm, no I can’t for the life of me, ma’am.”

“Quite right you are! I merely tucked my chin in and flipped the chap onto his back. He wailed in terror!”

“Did you spare him?” begged the Halfling.

You’d have thought he’d told the giantess the wittiest limerick in all history, as she doubled over laughing.

“Oh you are a tease, Mr. Dorro! No, of course no—I smacked him on the head with my hammer and dispatched him with the knife to the heart. He was dead in seconds. With Böckram gone, the rest of his troops fled, leaving Trucky and I victorious. We found your Halfling kin, who were terrified at our valor.

Nevertheless, they followed us out of the caverns, whereupon we freed them and sent the prisoners back to Fog Vale, though I admit I snatched you up for my own. One of them asked for you, but I’m afraid I told a little fib that I couldn’t find you.”

“Was he a scruffy, bearded fellow with particularly bushy eyebrows?”

“How did you guess? A friend of yours, I assume?”

Dorro smiled. He was pleased that Amos Pinchbottle had been rescued and sent back to Fog Vale. If you had ever told him that he’d become fond of that dirty, foul-mannered miscreant, the bookmaster would have laughed, yet incredulously he enjoyed the chap’s company, despite Amos’ foolish ways and the poor choices he’d made in life.

“… and here’s my dear boy now. Truckulus, sweetheart! Mummy is here!”

She waved and hooted off into the woods. Moments later, Dorro felt the ground shake as a large being lurched towards them. “Here he is—did you find some edibles for us?”

Dorro looked up and saw another mountain of a creature, this one something akin to a young adult in Thimble Down terms. As his mother had noted, Truckulus seemed of a brooding disposition, with unruly dark hair and matching circles under his eyes, and scruffy, adolescent patches of whiskers on his cheeks and chin.

“I found rutabagas, celery root, winter leeks, and a brace o’ coneys that I snared in a trap. We can have a stew,” said the boy sullenly.

“Lovely, son. I’ll add my bread from this morning. Oh, my manners—Truckulus, meet Mr. Dorro, the Halfling. He’s quite pleasant company.”

The boy half grunted, half nodded.

“Now son, be nice to our guest. And as for my bread, Mr. Dorro, I can bake because when we raid the goblin caves, we also gather provisions, which were originally from Fog Vale, I’m sure. So my loaves are made from your flour—I suppose we’re stealing it but still, we giants must eat.”

“That’s understandable, m’lady—we have plenty at the farm. I’m a bit of cook myself and saw the supplies just last week. No one will starve from lack thereof.”

Thwock!

Something ricocheted off a nearby tree, startling the trio. Then a rock came sailing through the air and hit Truckulus on the noggin, making him howl in pain.

“Orkus!” shouted Saoirse, dropping to a crouch as more rocks sailed over their heads. “I suppose they’re a bit upset with us, what for stealing their prisoners and killing that rotter, Böckram.”

“What do we do, Mother?” Truckulus held his hand to his face, which Dorro saw was swelling rapidly. “They’re surrounding us—look!”

And truly, even Dorro became aware of the goblins in the periphery, all fanning out in the snow-covered forest, a dense, rock slope of trees and boulders that would make a quick retreat difficult. They were pinned down and losing any chance of escape.

“Truck, take Mr. Dorro and get down behind that big stone there. Keep your knife handy in case one or two of the beasties gets past me. Mummy’s going hunting.”

At that, the bookmaster saw Saoirse gathering rocks in the hem of her dress and scuttling off towards the enemy, her eyes blazing with battle-lust. It didn’t take long for the din of battle to rise.

Dorro looked over at Truckulus, who was miserably rocking back and forth, trying to forget the spot where the stone whacked his skull, and tried to make light conversation.

“So, your mother—quite a fighter, eh?”

“She does well enough,” mumbled the boy. “Watch—.”

Dorro looked up towards the sounds of skirmishing and saw Saoirse about fifty paces away. She was throwing rocks with incredible accuracy, knocking goblins dead where they stood.

Yet the battle was fierce and other orkus were shooting black darts at her, which seem to annoy the giantess more than anything else and make her even angrier.

“Arrggghhhhh!” she roared and charged at a pod of goblin archers.

Saoirse fell upon them and began throwing them this way and that, bodily picking each one up and heaving them against tree trunks and boulders with a sickening crunch.

“You stay away from my boy!” she bellowed at the retreating beasts, still tossing rocks and picking off stragglers at a distance.

Almost as quickly as it began, the skirmish was over and the giant returned to the tree, her battle fever subsiding.

“Oh dear, I seem to be perspiring awfully,” Saoirse said in a dainty voice, as if she’d been overexerting herself in the garden rather than tearing goblin attackers limb from limb. “Perhaps I’ll take a bath ‘ere we return home. How’s the eye, sweetie?”

Truckulus lowered his hand, revealing a black-and-yellow welt on the side of his face and eye, drawing more motherly affection. “Here, pack some snow on it as we walk home. After my bath, I’ll put a berry tincture on it and more ice. Those nasty brutes hurting my lil’ Trucky!”

“Mother—please, do not call me that.”

“I’m sorry, sweet boo-boo ‘kins. I’ll try to behave,” said Saoirse sheepishly.

“Mother!”

“That, too? Oh, it’s so difficult to be a parent.” She picked up the basket and began heading back to their home in a safer part of the wood. “Do you have children, Mr. Dorro? Or am I being too nosy?”

The Halfling smirked.

“There’s nothing to tell—I’m a lifelong bachelor without any natural children. But recently, I’ve welcomed a long-lost nephew into my life and it’s made a world of difference.”

“In many ways, I’ve come to regard Wyll as more than my heir; he’s the closest thing to a son I’ve ever had and I’m very proud of him. So, yes, I can understand the concern you show for Master Truckulus. If goblins ever came after my Wyll, I’d fight them … tooth and claw!”

Saoirse laughed gaily as they meandered their way down the slope and towards the comfy house, there to forget the day’s violence and enjoy a quiet dinner and thence to sleep.

[]The Exiles

The following morning, Dorro awoke on his straw bed and remembered where he was. For a moment, he thought he was home in the Perch, but that dream was dashed instantly.

The previous evening, Dorro, Saoirse, and Truckulus had repaired to this house where the lady giant had prepared a satisfying supper of rabbit and root vegetables, as well as more of the wine she fermented herself. It was rather good, the Thimble Downer noted.

The floor shook briefly, alerting him that Saoirse was awake and preparing breakfast; at least he hoped it was she and not her sullen boy. The bookmaster didn’t really trust him, not one bit.

“Good morning, Master Halfling.”

The giantess was toasting up slices of bread in her fireplace and set them out with fresh creamy butter, jam, and stout cider to help break their fast. Dorro hadn’t enjoyed these kind of creature comforts since his days at the Perch—which seemed years in the past instead of weeks.

“This is delicious, Saoirse—you are gifted baker,” he said, nibbling on a tasty chunk of toast slathered in butter and raspberry preserve. “I could go back to sleep after breakfast!”

“You do make me smile, friend. It’s nice to have someone to converse with,” she mused. “My boy isn’t much for chit-chat. How come you to be at Fog Vale, if you don’t mind my asking? You don’t seem, a-hem, the criminal type.”

Dorro sighed in agreement, pleased that someone had noticed that fact. For the next half hour, he regaled Saoirse with his legal drama and exile, letting it all pour out and even shedding the odd tear or two. It was a cathartic experience that left Dorro exhausted, but relieved. For her part, the giantess was a good listener and nodded supportively in all the right places.

After dabbing his eyes and nibbling another bit of buttery crust, he asked, “And why you, dear lady? What could make anyone exile you and poor Truckulus?”

“That, young Dorro, is yet another epic saga,” sighed Saoirse. “Let me tell you a story ….”

The she-giant looked wistfully out a small, crudely crafted window, one of the few in their home.

“My husband was called Gruftang. He was a learned giant and a good provider, but he had a falling out with his distant cousin, Broog, over something petty, yet it was enough to convince our tribe to send our family away.”

“What could have been so inflammatory as to cause something as grievous as exile? Seems a cruel and callous punishment.”

“Broog was obstinate and thick-headed, as giants are often wont to be. And he, in particular, wanted nothing to do with learning—for him, it was all about maintaining the old ways of our tribe. Learning seemed like poison to him and he wanted it eradicated from our kind, aside from the Elders.”

“Who are they?”

“Simply, the wisest of our clan who serve as arbiters and judges in our most serious matters. For outside of their gifts for reason, Broog felt that the role of all others were to work for the survival of the tribe: hunting, cooking, making giantlings, and rearing them into adults. For Gruftang and I, however, that was not enough—we both craved to better our minds, not only for ourselves, but Truckulus as well.”

Dorro gulped. “But then something bad happened, I guess.”

Saoirse looked like all the light had left her eyes. “Broog convinced the Elders that my husband was somehow responsible for a period of poor hunting in the mountains and that his use of logic was a curse upon us. Of course, it was nonsense, but the clan members were hungry and needed someone to blame. Broog took advantage of that and had us cast out, and thus we left, bearing our young Truckulus and looking for a new place to call home.”

“Along the way, in a cave deep within the mountains, my poor Gruftang fell ill and died in my arms. Bereft of a husband and father, Truckulus and I found our way here and have lived in this spot for perhaps two of your years. We built this home ourselves and created a life—of sorts.”

“What could the disagreement been over?”

“Oh, you know boys. Broog said my husband was too much of a bookworm and didn’t contribute enough to the tribe in terms of fighting our enemies. Gruftang was more interested in teaching the younger giants to read, but such ideas were considered radical—giants aren’t supposed to be bright and clever. Just strong and brave and ready to fight.”

“So Broog undermined him and turned our elders against us, saying Gruftang was soft and would ruin our bloodlines. It was foolishness, but the elders’ word is our law and there was nothing to be done about it. We were banished.”

“And with no community to join? That’s terrible.”

“No one likes giants, Dorro—not your fellow Halflings nor goblins, trolls, gnomes, or Men-folk. The only beings who deign to share our company are Elves and dwarves, who kindly share goods and trade with us. Sadly, they only stop by on rare occasion, when their hunting parties come to the mountains.”

Dorro was not mollified. “Your story and mine are strangely similar, m’lady. Both of us have been unfairly wronged and sent far from our homes—perhaps it’s no coincidence we met.”

“I like that sentiment, Dorro. It’s very sweet and kind of you, and yes, perhaps we were supposed to meet, though I have yet to understand why.”

The bookmaster furrowed his brow and thought on the matter. “I wonder if we can help each other return to our respective homes. Though I know not how.”

The giantess looked pensive for a moment.

“I worry about things, Dorro. The goblins haven’t challenged us openly for quite a while and I fear they will not forget yesterday’s battle and the death of Böckram. I’ve long thought they might try to launch warfare upon us and try to be rid of us for good. I fear that day is coming soon.”

“What are your alternatives? You and your son can’t stay here.”

Saoirse became quiet. “Truckulus and I don’t agree on the matter—truly, we don’t agree on much. I think you’re an honest fellow, Dorro, and I’d like to honest with you. My son thinks you could be a bargaining chip for our safety.”

“A bargaining chip?” The Thimble Downer didn’t like the sound of this. A shiver sailed up his spine.

“Truckulus says we could buy a few months of peace by giving you back to the orkus as their slave, which is unfathomable to me. This will not happen.”

Dorro gulped. He knew the boy’s baleful stares were not meant kindly, but hadn’t been prepared for this; he would die before submitting to life with the goblins again.

Saoirse continued, “Of course, we could just give you back to the guards at Fog Vale and be off again, searching for a new home. You’d have the chance to finish your sentence, but you could be kidnapped by the goblins again.”

“Is there no other course?” begged Dorro.

“Yes … we could go East.”

“East?”

“To the home of the giants, our folk. You could venture with us, for no other reason than to avoid the beasts, as well as your Halfling prison masters.”

Saoirse chose her words carefully. “You would see a world you’ve never seen before—indeed, I would guess that no Halfling has ever been to a giant village in the mountains.”

“But what of your exile?”

The giantess sighed loudly, shaking the table Dorro sat on. “If Truckulus and I go, we are returning to challenge Broog to a fight. If victorious, a battle to the death would restore our honor and our right to live among our kind. Conversely, we could die—.”

It was at that moment that Truckulus entered the room; clearly he had been listening at the doorway.

“Mother, how can you tell our secrets to the Urk-bäg?” he raged.

“Urk-bäg?” asked Dorro. He was fairly sure it was not a flattering term, likely something equivalent to “lowly bug.”

Saoirse barked at her son in a low, droning voice—the language of the giants. They railed at each other for some moments, which to Dorro felt something like an earthquake. The entire house shook. Finally, the mother shrieked at an impossibly loud volume, causing Truckulus to stand mute—livid, but bound by some code unbeknownst to the Halfling.

“I put it to you again, Dorro. Would you have us return you to your prison at Fog Vale, or come to an unknown doom in the East? Neither are the answer you seek, but that’s all I have to offer.”

The bookmaster was torn. His obvious answer was to go to Fog Vale and be more wary about goblin attackers. But even the prospect of being taken hostage again gave me shivers.

I could never live like that, he mused. If I was kidnapped again, I would jump into one of the orkus’ fiery pits and end it all. I would!

Dorro stood and faced Saoirse. He bowed low and arose again.

“M’lady, I accept your invitation and will voyage to the East. I may be venturing to my death, but it is my best course, even though I shall likely never see my friends, my home, or my nephew again. At least, I will die a free Halfling, neither slave nor prisoner.”

The giant woman looked down up him with gravity and pride.

“I believe you have made the correct choice, Dorro. If we’re to die as exiles, then we’ll leave this world together—as friends.”

At that, she extended her hand and the Thimble Downer rested his entire hand on one fingertip.

A silent promise was made.

[]Darkest Deeds

“Can it be true?”

Darwinna Thrashrack rushed into Mr. Timmo’s shop, looking less than her impeccable normal self. “I can’t believe Hamment would stoop so low!”

“It’s true, sadly enough.” Sitting in a corner, Bedminster Shoe’s head was hung low in shame. “We had no warning. One minute we were enjoying our breakfast at the Perch; the next, we were out in the snow with a few clothes stuffed in a bag.”

“How did it happen?”

“There was a knock on the door not an hour ago. When we opened it we found the Mayor’s private thugs were standing there—the same ones as from the library. They barged in and said we had five minutes to grab our things or be arrested for trespassing.”

“This must be illegal!” plead Timmo.

A door slammed. “I don’t know what’s legal and what isn’t anymore.”

The conspirators looked up and saw a grim Sheriff Forgo in the door frame. He held up a piece of vellum. “It’s a copy of the legal writ from last night, signed by the Mayor and witnessed by Osgood Thrip.”

“Give it here, Sheriff,” snapped Darwinna more forcefully than necessary. “I’m sorry, Forgo—please.”

The barrister scanned the document carefully and passed it along to her fellow solicitor, Tiberius Grumbleoaf, who arrived just behind Darwinna.

The big Halfling squinted as he read the handwriting and just as quickly put the paper back on the table. True to form, he opened his leather-bound book and began scrawling something of which only he knew.

“It’s legitimate,” said Grumbleoaf, not looking up from his volume. “Both Darwinna and I are experts in contract law and it appears valid, at least according to the new laws the Mayor has cooked up of late.”

“At present, gentlemen, I fear we are not living in a village bound by the rules we know; there are loopholes the Mayor and Thrip are exploiting, no doubt abetted by Hamment Shugfoot. They’re conjuring up fresh rules to serve their malicious intent.”

Darwinna Thrashrack cocked an eyebrow.

“Not to put too fine a point on it, but there’s nothing we can do about it. Those scoundrels are twisting the laws in a perfectly valid manner, particularly because the Mayor is also our magistrate. In hindsight, it was perhaps unwise to intertwine the roles into one personage; I’d say we are being soundly outwitted.”

Forgo snorted. “Outwitted by that idiot of a Mayor? Hah!”

Timmo chimed in, “The Mayor may be a rancid individual, Sheriff, but he’s crafty and clever. How do you think he’s remained our elected leader for so long?”

“I could kick myself,” added the lawman. “We had the election in the bag for Farmer Edythe last fall, but we let the Mayor win so we could squeeze the school wages out of him. This is his revenge.”

There was a sob in the room, emanating from none other than Bedminster Shoe.

“My school! First I lost that and now Mr. Dorro’s home. I’ve failed everyone.”

Wump!

There was a loud boom in the room, making everyone jump; even Darwinna squeaked like a mouse. Into the void, the sonorous voice of Tiberius Grumbleoaf filled the space in the back of Mr. Timmo’s shop, much like a foghorn in a storm.

“I am vexed—quite vexed indeed!”

The barrister snapped the half-moon reading spectacles off his nose and glowered about the room.

“I have heard quite enough about our Mayor and his legerdemain for skirting the rule of law. I cannot stand by and let him and Thrip run roughshod over our village. And don’t even get me started on Hamment Shugfoot, that smug, greasy weasel.”

“Tiberius!” Darwinna pouted. “You can’t say that about Hamment—he is our beloved colleague.”

“We’ll see about that, my dear. I have so far resisted deploying certain legal machinations that may affect the political climate in Thimble Down, but enough is enough. If I am able to bring certain actions to fruition, it many shake this village down to its very foundations. To my mind, it’s the only way to restore peace and order—and, above all, legality!”

Everyone in the room exhaled, even the terribly shaken Bedminster Shoe. It was quite a sight to see this normally quiet and placid Halfling worked up, like a blast furnace in the blacksmith’s shop, finally heated up for the day’s work.

“Do you really have something up your sleeve, Tiberius?” asked Darwinna in her sweetest voice. “This is no time for showmanship.”

“Showmanship? Pah! My good lady, Tiberius Grumbleoaf does not deploy mere parlor tricks. Now listen up and listen good.” He paused for dramatic effect, lowering his voice to a barely audible tone.

“Here’s how we’ll do it—

 

  • * *

 

It was a lonely morning when the trio set off through the woods.

Another foot of snow had fallen through the night, but it didn’t seem to deter Saoirse or Truckulus—to them, it was a mere dusting, their massive feet stomping through the drifts like they weren’t there.

On foot, Dorro would have been a hindrance, so Saoirse put him into the hanging basket hanging from her neck—it was like his own viewing box, though the Halfling was bounced around quite a bit. But she made sure he was snug in layers of wool and aside from the jostling, he knew it could have been more uncomfortable. More than that, Dorro simply enjoyed an adventure, though it meant almost certain death.

The wind had picked up and bit into their skins, causing even Truckulus to complain.

“Mother, this is intolerable. We should find a cave to ride out the weather.”

“Tish-tosh, son, it’s only a mild inconvenience. Your father also liked the cold winds of the North, the harder and sharper the better—he said it made cuddling at night so much more fun.”

The boy’s face contorted into a look of horror.

“Mother! That’s revolting,” but that only made her chortle louder.

The three tracked through the mountains, pausing only briefly to rest in the snow, sleet and wind. Saoirse gave Dorro bits of bread and cheese to nibble on, but otherwise he bounced around in his little basket through the numbing hours. There wasn’t much to see—despite being in high country, they were too deep within its canyons, ridges, and fissures to glimpse any sublime vistas. To the bookmaster, it was a continuous montage of snow, rock, and scrubby trees fighting to survive.

“I’m bored,” snarled Truckulus impatiently, “We should have never left our house.”

“We’ll be home soon,” said Saoirse. “We have just started up Umbar-Trüach, the last mountain. It will not be easy, but I know the way.”

Truckulus snarled at his mother in the droning, slow language of giants, and the two bickered for some time, as mothers and their older sons sometimes do.

Soon enough, Truckulus would be full grown and ready to leave the embrace of his parent, facing the world on his own—this was Nature’s way of preparing the path.

Finally Saoirse spoke. “I won’t lie to you, friend—my son has brought up a good point, but there’s nothing to be done about it.”

“Are we in trouble, my lady?” Dorro caught Truckulus glaring at his mother.

“Umbar-Trüach is notorious for its unruly denizens. Trolls, actually.”

“Trolls? Oh dear—I didn’t know they were even real! Can’t we go around the mountain?”

Saoirse made a loud, derisive snort. “I’m sorry, Dorro, but there are no other routes. Unlike goblins, who are merely fleas to us, trolls are real adversaries. The only thing giants have to their advantage is a bigger brain, but still, trolls are fast and wily combatants. Fortunately, they usually sleep during the day; if there’s trouble, don’t worry, I’ll make sure you’re safely out of the ….”

Crash!

A boulder exploded over their heads, showering bits of stone and gravel like rain. “Apparently, they’re not asleep, m’lady!”

Dorro peered into the rocky, snow-covered landscape, trying to see who threw the rock. They were on a slowly rising path that tread through a rocky ravine. There were sharp rises and drop-offs at every angle, making their position hard to defend—the enemy could be anywhere.

“There!” shouted Truckulus, pointing up a scree to their right.

What Dorro had perceived as boulders covered with ice and snow were now moving slowly downhill. And worse, they were picking up huge rocks as they went and heaving them.

“We must make haste!” said Saoirse with surprising calmness. “If we don’t find higher ground, we will be in great peril.”

With that, she lurched forward into a run—more like a jog for some a creature of her size, but she stopped short—on the path in front of her was a hulking troll, a great lumpy beast holding a boulder in each hand and preparing to throw them. Carefully, the she-giant removed Dorro’s basket and set it in the branches of a small pine tree, making sure it was secure. She dropped her stance for battle.

“Come on, beastie!” she barked, taking the vanguard ahead of Truckulus. There were other trolls coming up on their flanks, which they ignored for the moment. “Throw your little pebble, friend. I know you can do it.”

The monster seemed to take the bait, winding up to throw a big stone at them, but Saoirse took them moment to rush the troll.

Without time to release his weapon, the creature was taken off balance. Saoirse hit him (or at least, Dorro assumed it was a him) square in in the chest, knocking him on his backside. The bookmaster was horrified at what transpired next, as the giantess grabbed one of the boulders and smashed it down upon the troll’s head. Dorro had briefly seen the battle-frenzy giants were capable of and it terrified him.

Within moments, more trolls attacked, viciously grappling the mother and son. For all his sullen behavior, Truckulus was competent in battle, Dorro noticed, punching and jabbing with his short sword. But there were too many trolls for just the two, and the tide of the battle was turning against them.

Two mountain trolls grabbed the boy and held him in fierce arm lock, while Saoirse battled to save her son, yet she too was beset by monsters, dim-looking creatures with more brawn than brains and an abiding hatred of her kind. Dorro cowered in his basket, knowing there was nothing he could do but watch the giantess and her son get killed.

Thud!

A large rock came sailing down the scree and struck a troll directly in the head, rendering it unconscious or, more likely, dead. Another stone flew, striking the trolls and making them roar in anger.

Dorro was baffled by the blind attack, but wondered who would dare confront trolls. It didn’t take long for him to figure out, as massive shadows emerged from the rocks and behind pine trees to pound on the beasts.

These, the Halfling knew, were giants!

They furiously wrenched Saoirse and Truckulus free and began pummeling the trolls bloody with rocks, clubs, and maces. A few of the monsters escaped down a ravine, but most died, no match for the brawn and superior intellect of giants. It was a short, violent battle that left the snow sprayed with flecks of red.

Saoirse was quick to regain her wits and make sure her son was alive. Seeing him sitting on an icy boulder with more bumps than real injuries, she pushed the other giants out of the way and came for Dorro.

“Are you okay, my small friend?” she asked breathlessly.

“Me? Of course, Saoirse, I’m well—but how can I thank you and Truckulus? You surely saved my life.”

“Bah, it was nothing,” she said, “Trolls are a way of life for our kind. As long as you’re….”

“Saoirse!” A loud voice bellowed from behind her. “You should not have returned. This is regrettable.”

She turned slowly, still on her guard.

“Broog. I thought you’d be happy to see us.”

“Now is not the time for your strange sense of humor, Saoirse,” snarled a huge, muscle-laden giant with black hair and rough, scrubby beard. Dorro did not like the look of this one. “You were exiled, forever! You made a mistake in returning. We will have to bring you before the Elders for their decree.”

“Ah Broog, still grumpy after all these years,” said Saoirse. “You might at least pretend you’re happy to see me—brother.”

Like lightning, Dorro realized this was the giant who had killed her husband. Her very own sibling.

[]The Letters

Another dawn broke over Thimble Down, a fine, brisk early morning that marked the first day of March.

Mrs. Tunbridge made the children scrambled eggs and buttered toast for breakfast before heading out to deliver her latest handiworks and mending. She was the finest seamstress in the village and at this time of year, busy making and patching coats, scarves, gloves, and hats.

Cheeryup’s mother worked especially hard these days, as she was the primary wage earner in her burrow now, since the Mayor had so cruelly closed the library, cutting off what tuppences her daughter earned.

With her mother gone, the younglings poured cups of black tea and set out the folio of letters they’d snatched the night before.

“Here, Wyll, take this pile and I’ll take the other one. I know the answer is in here—I know it!”

They started reading, trying to read the faint ink handwriting. They worked for quite a long while before the girl reached over and grabbed her friend’s hand tightly.

“Listen to this—it’s about the heartwood.”

“Can you read it?” asked Wyll. “Looks like gibberish to me.”

“Havling isn’t all that difficult really. It uses a few letter substitutions, but I replace them in my head as I read. Simple!”

The boy marveled at Cheeryup’s intelligence; he had long suspected she was the smartest girl in all Thimble Down, if not beyond.

Now he knew for sure, but quieted down to listen to her read.

 

  • * *

 

Sept. the 15th, 1654, A.B.

 

My dearest Cousin Blythe,

 

We’ve been enjoying a visit with Grandmama Goodbody all summer and making the most of this faire weather.

Thimble Down is a pleasant inland village, so much Different from the bustle of St. Borgo, yet quaint in its way. The townsfolke are amiable in their Country Manner, yet crude in equal measure, but that’s to be Expected.

Indeed, there’s barely any form of Learning beyond the most Primitive degree. I won’t deny, however, these Halflings exude a rural charm, if you know what I mean. Sweet, but perhaps a little Dim. (Oh, I know I’m Cruel—but so too, Honest.)

Perhaps the most Intriguing part of our Summer excursion has been to the Great Wood, a wondrous forest just north of the hamlet itself. There are many Wonders in this bosque, from magnificent Stags and Bears to slithering reptiles and birds of all size and hue.

But no, what has interested so far is this Strange Gentleman I’ve met on several occasions. He’s an Odd little duck who speaks in a squeaky voice and stands a foot lower than myself. Apparently, he’s a Vagabond who resides near a vast elm known as The Meeting Tree, and is reputed to be conversant with many of the four-legged beasts of the Wood.

Laugh if you must, Cousin Blythe—I certainly did initially. But on no fewer than Three Occasions, I witnessed this Halfling speaking to greenery and the walking creatures of the Woodlands. On one occasion, he spoke to a Mighty Oak tree and asked how the Weather was faring upon its Crown.

A moment later, the funny fellow said the Oak had informed him that Rain was about to pour down on Our Heads and we should move to cover. We tittered and mocked the little imp, but verily, it Poured upon us not moments later and quite hard, too.

We were Soaked to the Bone, as well as the Halfling, but he seemed to enjoy it and mocked us in return for not listening to the Tree, cackling, “Always listen to yon Oaks, sir—they’re among the most Trustworthy trees in thee Forest.”

On another day, he espied us enjoying a picnic in a Deep Dell and said that a family of Honey Badgers lived here and the father had specifically advised him to remind guests to stay quiet. Apparently, the Good Mrs. Badger had just delivered a litter of babes and needed rest.

Again, we jeered the little Thimble Downer and told him to Leave us in Peace, but he replied that we’d been Warned and that Papa Badger had a bad temper. Of course, no sooner had the Vagabond departed than a fierce black-and-white beast leapt from his Warren, spitting and snarling at Us most Frightfully. Suffice to say, we Fled in Terror, but the small fellow had again shown his Prescience.

I’ve spoken to others about the Queer Chap, and they say, “Oh, it’s just Him that speaks to all in the Wood, sleeps in the Hollows, and naps with his funny Floppy Hat pulled down over his eyes. That is the way of the Heartwood.”

That’s all I have time for today, Cousin, but I thought you’d find this Illuminating. Imagine—a mystical being who converses with Wild, Ill-Mannered Things. As I said at the outset, we’ve enjoyed our weeks in Thimble Down, not the least of which is because of this Odd and Utterly fascinating Halfling.

Tell your mother we return to St. Borgo before the leaves change color, bearing gifts and souvenirs for all. Even so, I believe I shall miss this humble, funny little place.

It has grown upon me.

 

Yours Eternally,

 

[—Cousin Wilf.
(Mr. Wilfred Q. Lemondrop)]

 

  • * *

 

“What does any of that mean, Cheery?”

The girl frowned. “I have a theory—but I think I know who to go ask. Let’s go!”

In a burst, the younglings were out the door and tearing down the lanes to a nearby burrow. They pushed open the door, which ran a bell.

“Ah, children,” said a demur voice from the back room. “I thought I might see you soon.”

[]Ill Tidings

Dorro was more perplexed than usual and, more, wasn’t sure he’d made the best decision going East with the giants.

Even without the cold winds whipping about them, the reception Saoirse and Truckulus received from their kin was frosty at best. He was still trying to understand the dynamic of the situation, especially as Broog was the giant who had killed his friend’s husband and exiled her—yet was her brother. (Dorro assumed that subsequent family dinners were awkward.)

“What are we do with … that!” barked Broog and vaguely pointing in the bookmaster’s direction. “He can’t voyage to our caves—you know that.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, brother,” sniped Saoirse. “The Halfling is under my protection.”

The big giant grunted angrily in the giants’ own tongue, something Dorro thought was another reference to squishing him into jelly. Saoirse loudly shrilled back and this went on for a minute or two, until Broog huffed off.

“You will have to be blindfolded, Dorro. It is the only way. Even then, you must stay with me at all times—I don’t trust Broog or, for that matter, even Truckulus. Outlanders are not welcome among the giants; we are proud and somewhat shortsighted race, as you may have guessed.”

“I understand, my lady. I will do as you wish. Broog, errmmm, wasn’t by any chance thinking of squishing me into jelly, was he?”

Saoirse didn’t answer him, which suggested that was actually the case. Dorro made a mental note to stay close to her, as instructed. She crafted a small blind out of a bit of fabric from her coarse skirt and tied it around the bookmaster’s head.

With his vision obfuscated, he glumly sat down in his basket as the party began moving through the mountains. It was a long journey and a rather boring one, but considering the recent troll attack, Dorro figured, boring was better than dead.

During the trek, Dorro heard Saoirse occasionally conversing with others of her kind, the cadences of their voices rising and falling in that strange drone. One couldn’t call it a beautiful language, but then again, not entirely without its charms. The Thimble Downer found the timbres relaxing and ere long, he nodded off, sleeping away the hours as the giants crossed Umbar-Trüach toward their destination.

When Dorro awoke some time later, he sensed that the air was colder and the lack of ambient light suggested it was close to night. He stirred in his carrier uncomfortably.

“You are awake, friend? You must be hungry.”

Saoirse had become even more protective of Dorro and he felt grateful for that, considering the company. “We’re getting closer to our caves.”

“May I ask what your world is like?”

Saoirse paused. “I’ve never been asked before, now that I think on it. My guess is that giants are much like other folk, though our life is hard and requires constant vigilance. Our homes are built in caves and under stone—they’re not grand, as I’ve heard Dwarf cities are—but comfortable enough for us.”

“We love granite and rock and like nothing better than curling up on a hard slab of stone to sleep. Giants listen to the rocks—they speak to us in rhythms that tell us much about the world. We know when the mountains are happy and when they’re upset.”

“We can hear echoes of other things, be it a lizard calling out for a mate or the troubling sounds of goblins and trolls padding along in the distance, about to make mischief. We can hear our enemies from far, far away and it has saved us many times.”

“What do you do when you hear the orkus approaching? Do you flee?”

Saoirse harrumphed loudly. “Oh dear—giants do not flee, friend Dorro. No, we’ll more likely go to higher ground after setting a trap or two for our guests. Then we swoop down to wage savage warfare and slay them all. Usually, at least.”

The Halfling gulped and tried to change the subject to something brighter. “What do you eat, and how do you make your clothes?”

“You are full of questions today, aren’t you, little one? We eat all manner of things. Some of our kind tend great mountain yaks—big hairy ones who give us milk, curds, and cheese, as well as meat.”

“We are also expert forgers, adept at finding tender herbs and tubers, even under several feet of snow. These we eat raw or cooked in a stew. Truly, Dorro, you haven’t lived until you’ve enjoyed a savory yak stew in the middle of a blizzard—it’s breathtaking. The sounds of howling winds and snow squalls mixed with the scent of rich meats and aromatic herbs cannot be rivaled!”

The bookmaster smiled as best he could, trying to rid his mind of this repulsive culinary concoction.

“Our clothes are woven by a few of our nimbler folk on great looms, again from the hair of yak, goats, sheep, and other hairy beasts we come upon. We let nothing go to waste. We have a good life in the mountains, but perhaps by your standards a bit frugal and hardscrabble.

“If I might enquire, where did you get your schooling? Unlike Broog, you seem quite educated. He, on the other hand ….”

She laughed in her bold way, paying no heed to the other giants, some of whom shot her unkind glares.

“We have Elders, as I told you, and they are quite wise and have a certain prescience about the future. While many of the giants prefer a simple life among the rocks and boulders, some are more taken with matters of the mind.”

“My parents were of such stock and they sent me to take lessons from the Elders on a wide range of philosophical matters. That is where I met Gruftang, whose parents were similarly enlightened. We played as children and studied with the wise ones; as we matured, I suppose it was inevitable that we would fall in love and wish to be mated. Those were happy times—Truckulus came not long after.”

Dorro sighed. “I’ve never had a mate. Never thought to find one, really—I suppose I’m too wrapped up in my world. It would be nice to have a little more company every once in a while, but I’ve made a life and it’s a good one. Well, it was—.

Some of the other giants began droning around them, reminding the bookmaster of his predicament.

“What will happen when we arrive in your village?”

The giantess paused. “I’m not sure, but we have broken the rules of our banishment and the Elders will no doubt be called upon to judge us. I’m hoping they spare Truckulus and merely punish me.”

“I don’t know your ways, good lady, but I’m still not sure while you were exiled in the first place. Of course it’s none of my business.”

“As I mentioned, Broog wanted to become a chieftain—one of our great leaders—but Gruftang opposed him, saying Broog was too warlike and rash. A chieftain, he argued, needs wisdom and counsel from our Elders to effectively lead. Broog challenged my husband to battle, but Gruf said he couldn’t fight his wife’s brother. For refusing to battle, he was branded a coward and banished. It is our way, right or wrong.”

“That seems cruel, but considering the ways of my folk, not all that different; we Halflings are cruel at times. It seems that hatred is a common thread for all creatures, particularly the more intelligent ones, sadly enough.”

Saoirse replied, “Neither Broog, nor the Elders, are our biggest concern. Another of Broog’s party told me that they’d captured a goblin recently and coerced him to speak. The orkus hinted at malevolent things.”

“Malevolent? In what way?” Dorro was troubled by these tidings.

“The beast suggested that the goblins were amassing a great army, but for what, he wouldn’t say. Only that the giants should beware, as well should every other creature hated by the goblins.”

The bookmaster then remembered something.

“If I may speak from experience, the orkus launched a massive campaign last Autumn, one that swept Southward and nearly wiped out the Halfling world. It was only by dint of a coalition of dwarves, elves, Men-folk, and Halflings that we were able to turn their mighty horde back and save our kind. We lost many, many good folk in Thimble Down and beyond—the toll was high.”

“I didn’t know this, Dorro. That bodes poorly. If they were beaten in the West, perhaps they’ve turned their sights Eastward to the Grey Mountains and beyond—the land of the giants and our kin.”

“You should be wary, my lady.”

They spoke little after that, Dorro mostly sitting in his dark cocoon and nibbling on more bread in the cold. Finally, he heard voices murmuring and rising in intensity, the company breaking into a fast trot for the last mile or two.

He heard Saoirse gasp in shock.

“We are here, Dorro, but it’s a calamity. Our settlement has been—destroyed.”

[]Visiting Mr. Timmo

“Come in, children, and have a seat. I just baked a funeral pie and thought you might like some.”

“Funeral pie, Mr. Timmo—what is that?” asked Cheeryup with skepticism. “Sounds, errmmm, appetizing.”

“Ooo, I know what it is!” hooted Wyll. “It’s made from raisins and dried fruit.”

“Correct, young fellow. Do you know why that is, Cheeryup?” The girl still looked confused. “Wyll, you seem to be our resident pie expert.”

“Because it’s the kind of pie you might bring to a funeral in winter, when there’s no fresh fruit!”

Timmo clapped. “Full marks, Master Underfoot.”

Cheeryup frowned. She didn’t like it when others knew the right answer, so she changed the subject.

“Why were you expecting us, sir?”

Mr. Timmo smiled faintly. On the surface, he was the meekest of Halflings, a quiet, contemplative fellow who only spoke when necessary. Yet Cheeryup knew Mr. Dorro held him in the highest regard for his intellect and irreverent sense of humor. Often, the bookmaster thought Timmo the most uncanny thinker in all of Thimble Down, short of himself of course.

“I’ve been thinking about your hunt for clues about this heartwood and have been putting my mind to it. Yet you must be here for a specific reason, Miss Tunbridge—out with it, you two!”

“We found something!” blurted out Wyll, much to the aggravation of his friend. “A letter!”

“Here it is, Mr. Timmo. It’s quite old.”

Timmo arched his eyebrow. “How did you get this? The library is quite off-limits right now. You didn’t ….”

Cheeryup smiled, “Oh yes we did—and we had every right!”

“Young lady, that’s not the point. The point is that library is not a safe place at the moment and if you were caught, who knows what the punishment would be.”

“We were caught, actually,” blurted Wyll before catching his tongue. “I mean ….”

“What have you rascals been up to?”

“I wasn’t going to let that toad of a Mayor keep us out of our library—it belongs to all of us, the villagers of Thimble Down,” she said defiantly.

“And even so, Cheeryup kicked the first bugger in the shins and I dropped down on the other feller’s head, knockin’ him out cold. So we were fine.”

Timmo looked like he was about to faint.

“You little fools! You could have been hurt—and how would I have been able to explain that to Dorro?”

“Mr. Dorro would understand; we’ve certainly been up to our necks in trouble any number of times and usually on his account,”

Cheery beamed proudly while Wyll grinned next to her.

“You younglings are incorrigible,” sighed Timmo. “Now, back to your letter. Let me see it.”

He read for a few minutes, lost in thought.

Finally Timmo looked up. “What do you make of it?”

“I have a theory, but it sounds a little odd, even to me.” The girl had a look of uncertainty on her face.

“Out with it!”

“I think … Dalbo is the heartwood.”

“What?” squawked Wyll. “You didn’t tell me that?”

“It sounds mad and I thought you’d laugh at me.” The boy frowned at her, but to his left, a sly smile crept across Mr. Timmo’s face.

“You are quite a bright little thing, aren’t you, Miss Tunbridge? I’d be lying if I said the same thought hadn’t crossed my mind. There are so many similarities between what the chap wrote in this letter seventy years ago and everything we knew about Dalbo Dall.”

Wyll raised his hand. “But this doesn’t explain what a heartwood is. Is it just a strange Halfling who speaks to animals and trees?”

“A valid point, Master Underfoot. In and of itself, the notion of a heartwood doesn’t amount to more than some kind of freakish curiosity. You’re right to question the reason behind it—what is the purpose of a heartwood, whether it was Dalbo or not?”

“What if—.” Cheeryup seemed stuck on a thought.

“What if what, girl?”

“What if the heartwood is more than just an odd fellow who talks to trees and birds. What if he takes care of them, too? Sort of a physick or healer.”

“Excellent, Cheeryup!” beamed Timmo. “Now that would make some sense. Could that fool Dalbo have been such an important fellow after all?”

Wyll broke in, “If you remember, sir, we’ve heard my uncle tell us about Dalbo’s rants on the Great Wood and he also knows elves! Uncle Dorro once asked Dalbo to bring Grimble to live with the elves. And I heard he was directing the trees to fight goblins in the great battle last fall. It all adds up.”

“Then why was he lying down in the woods when Mr. Dorro accidentally shot him?” wondered the girl.

“That, I’m afraid, we’ll never know,” murmured Timmo. “We can’t cross the threshold of Death and ask Dalbo. But I worry this brings up a larger matter.”

“You mean that the Great Wood is without its keeper,” said Cheeryup without expression.

“That’s what I’m worried about—if Dalbo was the heartwood and the heartwood took care of the Great Wood, who will do it now that he’s gone?”

It was Wyll who dropped the other shoe. “Does this mean the forest and the Meeting Tree could die without him?”

Mr. Timmo looked grave.

“That is precisely what I fear, young Master Underfoot, and if that comes to pass—it might also portend the fall of Thimble Down itself.”

[]Broken Boulders

“What do you mean—destroyed?” said Dorro, pulling off his blindfold.

After hours in the dark, his eyes were blurry and he had trouble adjusting to the light of fires flickering in the rocky landscape. It looked like a hurricane or earthquake had struck, but instead of knocking down trees, it had broken massive rocks and smashed jagged cliffs.

There was stony debris everywhere, as if the whole earth was made from ceramic crockery and accidentally dropped on the floor. Saoirse knelt by the first giant she came upon.

“Burgata, it’s me, Saoirse. Do you remember?” The older she-giant nodded dully. “Can you tell me what happened?”

The one named Burgata began the slow drone-speak, her pitches rising and falling without inflection, slow waves of sound hanging in the air. They conversed like this for several minutes while Dorro became more impatient by the second. They stopped.

“It’s bad, friend,” said Saoirse. “I should not have brought you—we are in great peril and you most of all.”

“What happened?”

“It was a surprise attack, just after dark. Burgata—who I remember as a friend of my mother’s—said it was a combined force of goblins and trolls, which is a dark omen in itself. Goblins and trolls are sworn enemies and I’ve never heard of them uniting; this speaks of some evil I’ve never heard of.”

She sighed.

“Unbeknownst to us, the enemy labored high in the mountains for weeks, building a bulwark of boulders and stone they could cut loose upon command. The avalanche destroyed most of our caves and killed those who were at rest or asleep. Entire families perished. And now without shelter, the survivors may freeze and starve to death.”

Dorro didn’t know what to say. This was a catastrophe and, indeed, he wished he was back at Fog Vale, a prisoner, but still alive.

“Demon!” There was a loud commotion in the camp and the sounds of anger and vengeance. Where is the demon rat?”

Saoirse pushed Dorro’s head down into his basket and spun around.

“What is this nonsense, Broog? Why are you disturbing these good folk in their time of need?” she raged.

“It’s your fault, Saoirse!” wailed the big giant. “You were banished, but you chose to return and bring misfortune to our folk. And worse, you brought an evil Urk-bäg into our midst—it is bad luck!”

“You’re a fool, brother. The Halfling has nothing to do with the attack. Only the small-minded see omens where there are none. You never were terribly clever, even we were young—you always wanted to use your muscles instead of any semblance of wit.”

Yet Broog had already stoked the anger of his fellow giants, many of whom wanted someone to blame for the disaster. The mob behind started chanting something Dorro was sure wasn’t friendly. The image being squished into jelly once again flickered in his mind.

Saoirse growled at an unimaginable volume, making the Halfling tumble in his basket.

“No!” The she-giant roared as another grappled her from behind, putting her in a neck lock from which she couldn’t move.

“Now Broog—grab the maggot and crush it!”

Saoirse turned her head in disbelief, shocked that her captor was none other than Truckulus. She cried out, “You have betrayed me? First my brother, and now my son!”

“It’s for the good of our folk, Mother,” spat the boy. “The Urk-bäg has brought evil upon us and must die!”

Dorro knew that his minutes in this world were coming to an end. Saoirse was the only one that would protect him and, as he peered over the edge of the basket, observed Broog slowly advancing, a glint of menace in his eyes.

The Thimble Downer closed his eyes and sat down, waiting for imminent death.

 

  • * *

 

For no less than the third time, the Mayor convened a hearing at the Hanging Stoat to discuss the crimes and punishment of Dorro Fox Winderiver.

The sky was heavy with impending snow, and tavern packed with Thimble Downers ordering bowls of lamb stew and drinking ciders and ales by the gallon.

As representatives of the village, Osgood Thrip sat on one side of the rostrum, along with Hamment Shugfoot, who was glum and still nursing the lump on his head, thanks to a tankard that struck him last time.

Darwinna Thrashrack, Bedminster Shoe, and Tiberius Grumbleoaf were opposite; it may have been cold outside, but it was just as frosty between these parties.

“Your lordship, this is illegal—you can’t seize property based on new rules you yourself have imposed?”

“Am I to understand, Lawyer Thrashrack, that you are questioning the magistrate of Thimble Down and his motives? You are very close to contempt.”

The Mayor was playing his role to perfection, attacking logic with melodrama and false indignation. “If you continue in this manner, I will have you removed from this courtroom, do you understand me?”

Darwinna looked imploringly at Grumbleoaf, hoping for him to ride to the rescue, but he averted his eyes and merely scribbled in his big book as usual.

“I’m sorry, my lord,” she murmured in defeat.

“That’s more like it! Now, as to the events of this week and the further deaccessioning of the estate of Dorro Fox Winderiver. As you know, we have new forfeiture laws which are retroactive one year. Simply put, criminals who have been lawfully exiled may not own property in the village of Thimble Down.”

A few voices in the throng of villagers rang out with jeers of “Boo!” and “The Mayor still stinks!” but a quick glance from the magistrate made his thugs leap to their feet and look about for naysayers. The insults faded. ‘

Even Sheriff Forgo was mute, as his power had been wheedled away by this new militia and everyone knew it.

“… and to that point, the residence of Winderiver—known rather vainly as the Perch …”

There was ooo’ing and ahh’ing in the crowd as the Halflings thought about Dorro’s wondrous burrow overlooking the River Thimble. Its vistas, cozy design, and—most importantly—interior running water made it the most envied hillock-home for miles around.

The Mayor continued: “—has been auctioned to the highest bidder, with the proceeds going directly to the good folks of Thimble Down,” lied the Mayor, though there were scattered cheers and even one voice that shouted “Dorro stinks!”

Darwinna Thrashrack stood up and registered an objection. “Your lordship, are you going to share with us who this interloper is? Who is the person who violently ejected not only Dorro’s heir, but his legal guardian, poor Mr. Bedminster Shoe?”

“I don’t believe it’s in the public interest to share the bidder’s name,” said the Mayor distractedly. “I can’t see what bearing it has.”

The mob of Thimble Downers in the Hanging Stoat thought otherwise and started clanking and banging their ale tankards on the tale, loudly voicing their displeasure. The magistrate returned fire by banging his gavel.

Hamment Shugfoot stood up and turned to the crowd.

“I have nothing to hide—I legally bid for the Perch and offered the highest amount of gold, which makes me the legitimate owner of the property under this law. I have the paperwork to prove it!”

The Stoat erupted in furor as the Halflings realized Shugfoot was the beneficiary of a backroom deal between the Mayor and Osgood Thrip.

Darwinna stared at her colleague in disbelief, while her fellow conspirators sat in stunned silence. It was the penultimate stroke of the Mayor’s wicked plan and a brilliantly executed one at that.

“And that’s that!” bellowed the Mayor, banging his gavel again. “This hearing is now adjourned and if anyone objects, they can bring it up with the militia.”

He rapped on the table once more for good effect and departed. The remaining Halflings exploded in frenzy, dropping pennies and tuppers on the tables to pay Mr. Mungo and scuttling out into the cold to continue their umbrage elsewhere.

“Darwinna—

The beautiful barrister looked up from her table, tears in her eyes.

“How could you, Hamment? You’ve destroyed a good fellow’s life, exiling him for no reason and are now stealing his burrow from under him.”

Wearing a shiny vest and spotless green jacket, Shugfoot put on his most remorseful face.

“I’m sorry, Darwinna, I truly am—but I get so caught up in my work that I don’t know when to pull back. Plus Dorro is still a wealthy-enough fellow. We haven’t touched his fortune and he can use it when he returns to find a lovely new home … if he returns, of course.”

“I just don’t know how you can be so selfish, Hamment?” she cried. “Now that you have the Perch, how are you going to enjoy it, living there all alone?”

Shugfoot knelt down and put his hands over hers.

“My dearest, I didn’t buy the Perch for me—I bought it for us. I was going to wait for the right moment, but circumstances dictate otherwise. Will you be my wife? You’ll be the queen of the Perch, and the social darling of all Thimble Down. You’ve been waiting for this moment your entire life—it’s your time to become the most glamorous and envied woman in the Halfling counties.”

The barrister was overwhelmed by a torrent of feelings and emotions.

Did Hamment really just propose to me? she thought, dazzled by his dashing looks and expensive clothing. Just as quickly, she was overcome by an even more disturbing thought.

Why do I want to say … yes?

[]Words of the Elder

With the entire clan of giants against them, Dorro and Saoirse knew their time was diminishing.

The giantess was horrified that both her brother and own son had turned against them, though the Thimble Downer expected no less—Truckulus had resented him from the start. Now Broog was closing in for the kill, to crush the Urk-bäg he thought brought bad luck to the giants.

“Noooooo!” screamed Saoirse as Broog reached for the basket hanging around her neck.

“Leave him be, Mother!” hissed Truckulus in her ear, holding her immobile near a precipice that disappeared into utter darkness. “He’s a curse to us and must be killed. Stop resisting—Broog may have brought shame upon my father, but in this, he is right.”

“Perhaps you are right, son ….”

Dorro was shocked, but Saoirse had finally relented and, for a brief second, Truckulus relaxed his head-lock on his mother. The end was, at last, upon the Halfling.

Yet this was just enough time for the giantess to stomp down on the boy’s foot and throw her massive head backwards, crushing Truckulus’ nose with a horrible snap.

“Argh!” screamed the youth as dark blood shot from his nostrils, Broog suddenly lurching towards Dorro. Though he was a massive brute, Saoirse was fast and cunning; she grabbed her brother’s extended forearm and pulled it towards her, throwing him off balance and tripping him. The giant fell to the ground with a crunch.

With Dorro still clinging to the basket, she dropped her full weight on his head, causing further pain, but Broog was still alert enough to sink his big incisors into a thick leg, making her shriek and writhe in pain.

The massive siblings leapt up and faced off, both in full battle frenzy. Dorro couldn’t see any option but to stay put in his wobbly basket; if he leapt off, there was just as good a chance another member of the clan would sweep him up and flatten his tiny body.

Broog charged again, this time coming in low and tackling the giantess around her waist and they both tumbled towards the rocky ledge, shaking the ground. Miraculously, Dorro held on, tumbling and rolling all over his basket as his protector fought to defend his life.

The brother grabbed a huge rock and brought it high to smash on Saoirse’s face. Broog brought his arm down with terrifying force, but again, his sister’s speed prevailed. She moved out of the way at the last second, causing her opponent to lose his balance and flail forward.

Saoirse rolled behind Broog and shoved hard with her legs, enough to send him towards the edge of the cliff.

“Brother!”

She reached out to save him, but it was too late. The hulking figure lost his balance and toppled over the edge, silently falling to his doom, a look of shock and surprise on his face. That didn’t deter remaining clan members who moved in to finish the task of killing the Urk-bäg.

Saoirse turned and raged, “Is there anyone else who wants the Halfling? You’ll need to get through me to do it!”

“Peace! We call for peace!” said another voice, resonant and otherworldly.

Three solemn shadows emerged from the gloom. These giants were ancient and hobbled; the others parted and let them pass unimpeded. Dorro knew instinctively they were some kind of revered figures.

“Enough violence and bloodshed,” spoke the second one.

Saoirse whispered to her companion, “These are our Elders—say not a word!”

The third voice rang out, “Broog is dead. Who has done this? I am blind and cannot see.”

“It was I. Saoirse, wife of Gruftang, mother of Truckulus—she who was banished.”

“Why have you returned? You were exiled until the end of your days.”

Dorro heard the giantess take a deep breath and gird herself.

“I wanted to end this. Broog shamed my husband and I could stand it no longer. I came to find resolution, not just for myself, but for Truckulus. I didn’t mean to kill my brother.”

There was silence. At last, one of the Elders spoke.

“It is done and we hold no enmity towards you—nor should any of the clan. Broog is dead and you have avenged Gruftang. He was a fool anyway and found pleasure in wielding power over others. Yet we have greater woes.”

The last elder said, “We must unite to defeat our foes. The Grey Mountains are no longer safe haven for our kind.”

Truckulus, who had been sulking in the shadows and holding his bloodied nose, spoke up.

“Why should we fight them? We’ve lost! We giants should fly further east, away from our enemies in distant mountains and vales.”

One of the Elders replied, “You are young and, like Broog, a fool. In time, you will understand, Truckulus, but if our clans retreat, the orkus and trolls will only grow stronger and come seek us out. And kill us.

Another rasped, “We must confront them now, while their alliance is still new. We’ve heard of their growing unrest and the threat to everything in the Wide Green Open.”

Truckulus was confused. “I do not know that place, this Wide Green Open.”

The Elders made strange sounds which Dorro realized was a form of derisive laughter.

“It is the world we live in, young one. It is all the Western lands to the sea, those made up of elves and Halflings; the South lands of the Men-Folk; and the Northern realms of the dwarves—all the way East to the Grey Mountains where our kind has lived for generations upon generations.”

“The orkus and trolls have long troubled us in small numbers, but never like this before. They have been planning a great rebellion and now they are striking.”

“They failed in the West—I was there, in the midst of the fighting!” piped up Dorro, only to be shushed by Saoirse.

“Who said that?” said the blind Elder.

“It’s the Halfling—the one who is under my protection,” she said proudly.

“Ahh … one of that small kind. I thought I smelled something unusual. Welcome, Master Halfling. I would hear your words of the Battle of the West; I have heard it was terrible.”

Saoirse shot him a look of foreboding, but Dorro spoke anyway.

“It was a fight for the ages, Wise One—thousands of goblins attacked our lands. It was only because the Halflings, elves, Men-folk, and battle dwarves fought together that we survived—itself, a strange alliance. But we crushed them, not four or five months ago! My word, I’ve even forgotten what month it is.”

“It was a great victory, no doubt, but a temporary one. The goblins are now pushing East with their troll allies, hoping to conquer the giants. Then they will go North and dispatch the dwarfs in Gildenhall. Lastly, they will drive South upon the Men-folk, elves, and Halflings like a hammer, and push them out to open sea. They seek to control the Wide Green Open and kill her forests.”

“Yes, the Wide Green Open. I’ve heard that turn of phrase before—from a fellow who lived in our forest, which we call the Great Wood. Yet …”

“Yet what, small one?”

“I killed him,” murmured Dorro. “By accident, but I struck him with an arrow.”

There again, the bookmaster heard the uncanny sound of the ancient giants chortling in their hoarse, wheezing manner.

The blind Elder spoke: “It’s not so easy to kill a heartwood—but that is the only one who would know of the Wide Green Open. Was he a small thing, like a Halfling, with pointy ears, a squinty face, and lighthearted manner?”

“Yes—that’s Dalbo Dall!”

“Hmmmm, we know of him,” added another. “He’s a heartwood, but no, you couldn’t kill him with an arrow, even if you loosed fifty of them.”

“But I saw the body!” cried Dorro. “He was lying in the Great Wood and I stuck an arrow in him through my own foolishness.”

“Is that why you’re here, Master Halfling? You shouldn’t have troubled yourself. The heartwood was merely dormant for the Winter, as is their way. Their role in preserving the Wide Green Open is crucial and they can only perish by fire, great age or, sometimes, a bad case of root rot. A small Halfling arrow would be but a scratch to them.”

Dorro was incredulous. Could it be this was all a cruel mistake? Is it true he’d never killed Dalbo Dall—he was just asleep as this heartwood? The bookmaster’s mind was reeling.

“I’ve got to go home!” yelped the Thimble Downer. “I must go clear my name—my nephew is in great peril.”

“Sadly, the world is in greater trouble at the moment,” whispered the first Elder. “You will be needed in the vanguard as we head West, back to the nexus of this evil … what you call Fog Vale. It is there that the goblins and trolls are concentrating their forces and readying for war.”

“And we must hurry, otherwise Fog Vale will be no more—and then they will come for us. It would better to surprise them in battle. Many will die, but it’s the only salvation for the giants and, indeed, everyone in the Wide Green Open.”

It was Saoirse’s voice they all heard next.

“To battle! To battle, all! We must organize and set our path to the West, following the setting sun. There is no time to brood or bury the dead. Rise!”

The blind Elder opened his mouth and said softly. “Alas, she is right. It is time for us to march to victory or else—death and ruin.”

[]Thoughts of Home

Dorro’s mind was reeling.

Not only had he traveled through rugged mountain terrain and heavy snow to get to the caves of the giants—encountering deadly trolls along the way—but now was headed back to Fog Vale by the same treacherous path.

Why does this always happen to me? he whined silently. Why not Osgood Thrip or the Mayor?

The bookmaster rested his head on his hands, moping in a manner befitting a toddler, not a Halfling in his middle years.

“How are you faring, friend?” asked his enormous host, still bearing him in a basket without complaint. “Are you in comfort?”

Dorro felt a twinge of shame, particularly in light of the fact that Saoirse had risked her life to save his life more than once. “I am well, my lady—just wallowing in dark thoughts. I will shake it off soon.”

“Good—I brought food for you, if you get hungry.”

The bookmaster felt morose and felt the need to get something off his mind.

“Saoirse—?”

“Yes.”

“I must thank you for everything you’ve done—I would have died many times over without your kindness and strength. I’m not sure what I’ve done to deserve your generosity.”

Saoirse looked at Dorro with her big eyes. “You are welcome, Master Halfling, but you don’t need to thank me. You have given me much in return—most of all, your comradeship and intelligence. Most of your folk would look upon me as a monster, but you seem to regard me as a friend. That’s a gift.”

The Thimble Downer was so overcome with emotion that he did something that surprised them both—he stood up in his basket and gave Saoirse as vast a hug as he could muster. A moment later, the giantess wrapped her hands around him and gave him a squeeze back.

Dorro sat back down and looked out from his strange perch. The embrace was something he would remember for the rest of his life.

 

  • * *

 

Some hours passed as Dorro nodded in and out of slumber.

He awoke as the dim winter sun was setting and ate some bits of bread and dried meat Saoirse had left in his basket.

He had many questions, too.

“How many giants are headed to battle, if I may ask? I assume the goblins have amassed a considerable force.”

The giantess thought for a moment. “As of this moment, we are but a hundred strong, but the Elders sent couriers throughout the Grey Mountains asking for help. By dawn, we should treble that figure and within two days, perhaps a thousand or two.”

Dorro tried to do the arithmetic in his head. “Will that be enough? The orkus and trolls may number ten thousand—or even more!”

“As the Elder said, we are marching to our Doom and that is something we must accept. The battle will be as it will be; either will we live or not. It’s more important that we fight well. Each giant can destroy one hundred orkus, but the trolls worry me. As I said, despite their limited mental ability, they are dangerous and cunning.”

“Are giants and trolls related?”

Dorro instantly regretted the question, but it only made Saoirse smirk.

“You compare us to great, misshapen beasts with small brains? That amuses me, Halfling.”

“That’s not what I meant! I was referring to your size—both giants and trolls are leviathans compared to us wee creatures.”

Dorro was pink with embarrassment, while the lady grunted again.

“As I was taught from my earlier days, we are from the same stock, born in the early days of the Wide Green Open. But some of us chose to live in bright, airy caves under mountain skies, while others drove deep into the earth and hid in caverns miles underneath.”

“Those, of course, were the trolls, who never loved living things, other than fish and lizards in the deepest grottos. They have no desire for fresh air, cold winds, or bright sun—trolls crave the dark and seek to crush anything that thrives on the surface. Goblins are much the same way. They rule the underworld and now seek to destroy everything under the sun.”

“Why? There is no reason.”

“Because they hate us—hatred is a part of life, sadly enough.”

“We have plenty of it in my village, my lady. It is the reason I’m here, but I’m just as guilty as they are. I hate injustice and bullying, and the way the wealthy abuse the poor.”

“You may be small, Dorro, but you are brave and valiant like my husband Gruftang.” She sighed. “Let us speak of happier things. Tell about our home and your nephew who you seem so devoted, too. But first, I have a question for once.”

“Certainly, my lady, anything.”

“What—?” She paused. “What is a nephew?”

Now it was Dorro’s turn to giggle. Clapping his hands together and began to regale Saoirse with stories of Thimble Down and rich life he once led.

Soon the long miles and lonely hours disappeared and the two friends spent an afternoon happily lost in comradeship.

[]Tiberius’ Idea

This was something new. This was something unexpected. This was something daring.

“I am not pleased by your actions, Barrister Thrashrack,” fumed the Mayor, sitting behind a table and wearing his magistrate’s robes.

“You have a half hour to prove this assembly has some merit or so help me, I will cite you for contempt. You too, Grumbleoaf! Don’t play coy with me, sir—I know you’re up to your chubby neck in this.”

Unlike the previous hearings at the Hanging Stoat, this one was held at the library and had been called by Darwinna Thrashrack rather than the magistrate. Thus the Mayor had been called away from a leisurely afternoon at home and forced to don his robes and preside over this surprise event. He was more annoyed that over a hundred villagers had packed the building, hoping for more free entertainment.

Darwinna and Tiberius Grumbleoaf were having a tense conversation, while the Mayor banged his gavel for the proceedings to begin and the rabble to quiet down.

Rap! Rap!

“I don’t have all day, Miss Thrashrack. Am I to understand that you are not ready to proceed?”

Darwinna looked at Grumbleoaf tensely, as he held up his hands and shrugged. “Your honor, we are here today to further examine the deaccessioning of Mr. Dorro’s estate.”

“We have dealt with this issue enough—the matter is closed!” snapped the magistrate.

“Actually, my lord, I don’t think that’s technically correct.”

“Excuse me, Barrister Thrashrack—you dare challenge me in my own court of law? I think it’s time to levy a charge of contempt.”

Darwinna spun and shot Grumbleoaf another pained look. He looked helpless for a moment, but then brightened. Into the hearing space shot Wyll Underfoot and Cheeryup Tunbridge, the girl holding a scroll she had just retrieved from the gallery above.

“If you any give me three minutes, your lordship, I will explain everything.”

“The nerve!” shrieked the Mayor, but he waved a hand in agreement anyway and reached for his tankard of ale. He saw Darwinna and Grumbleoaf poring over the scroll and talking heatedly—he didn’t like this, not one bit. The Mayor shot Osgood Thrip and Hamment Shugfoot another unhappy look and they too looked annoyed and worried. This matter was supposed to be over by now.

“Your honor!” carped Darwinna, turning her attention back to the magistrate. “I believe we have something novel to offer in this matter.”

The magistrate rubbed his long muttonchops and scrunched his eyebrows together.

“Oh really? Because let me be clear—if what you offer today doesn’t amuse me, I will not only cite you and your porcine friend, but have you both thrown in gaol for a week or two. Am I getting through to you?”

“Yes, indeed, m’lord.” Darwinna looked nervous and unsure of herself, despite her ravishing blue-and-cream ensemble, a smart skirt with matching shirt and jacket, and a silk scarf about her delicate neck.

“Now, as to the Estate of the Mr. Dorro Fox Winderiver and the confiscation of his home—the Perch—and the library, wherein we stand right now.”

“Get on with it!” snapped the Mayor, getting impatient.

“It was decreed that a new ruling in the law books of Thimble Down prevented criminals from owning property, which made Dorro’s property transferable to ownership by the village.”

“Quite right, quite right! Wouldn’t you agree, Shugfoot?”

The solicitor of the village of Thimble Down stood and addressed the magistrate. “Yes indeed, your lordship. The rule was perfectly legal.”

“There, Miss Thrashrack! Now what have you to say?”

“I have this to say, m’lord,” said Darwinna tentatively. “Your new law is completely—illegal.”

The library exploded with a furor, Halflings leaping from their seats and howling with joy at this unexpected bit of controversy. Most of them despised the Mayor and loved to see him squirm.

“That’s it—contempt of court!” raged the Mayor.

This time, however, Hamment Shugfoot stood and approached the magistrate’s table. He leaned and spoke in the Mayor’s ear, something that made the latter turn red with anger. He banged his gavel again.

“Fine! Apparently, Barrister Thrashrack’s comment—while rude and annoying—is not worthy of a charge of contempt, thought I wish it was! Continue, counselor ….”

The magistrate was seething.

“As I was saying, the new rule is illegal, according to none other than the Codex Borgonian.”

There were gasps in the room. Darwinna kept going before she lost her nerve. “My esteemed colleague Tiberius Grumbleoaf has been researching your ruling and made a critical discovery. I’d like to call on Barrister Grumbleoaf to explain further, if I may.”

The magistrate waved his hand with annoyance. Tiberius closed his enormous leather book and stood solemnly.

“Your lordship and good Halflings of Thimble Down. I was taking notes in my book the other day, as is my custom, and a thought occurred to me. I examined an entry I had made perhaps nine months ago, an abstract rumination on the Codex Borgonian, which as you know, is the book that contains the original laws and decrees of King Borgo, created seventeen-hundred years ago. It is the basis for all Halfling law and has prudently guided our legal actions ever since.”

There were gentle murmurs of approval from the crowd, as the figure of King Borgo was revered by all Halflings, the boy-hero who defeated the villainous Men-folk and became the first ruler of their kind.

“Hurry up, man!” barked the magistrate. “We don’t have all day, Grumble-Toad!”

Ignoring the jibe, Tiberius carried on.

“What stuck in my mind about my earlier scribbling on the nature of St. Borgo’s Third Law, the so-called ‘Rights of the Accused’ passage. So I asked my young friends Wyll and Cheeryup—both so well acquainted with the contents of this fine library—to find a copy of it in the archives. And happily, they did.”

Grumbleoaf held up the scroll as evidence.

“Do you have actually have a point, Grumble-Bumble, or are you merely wasting the court’s precious time?”

The Mayor, really, would have preferred to be in his burrow taking a nap.

“Indeed I do, sir!” Grumbleoaf pushed his reading glasses up onto his squat nose and coughed loudly. “The Third Law of St. Borgo is quite clear on the matter of those accused of crimes.”

“If I might paraphrase the complex legal writing, it states, No property can be confiscated by village or government—even that owned by a criminal—without proof of death. Furthermore, any change to this law by a municipality or village would require a public vote. I need to say that again, your lordship. Your new law would require a public vote by the villagers of Thimble Down to become valid and binding.”

The Thimble Downers again jumped up and began hooting at the Mayor, including less-than-pleasant words like “swindler!” and “liar!” and the always popular “big nose!”

By now, the Mayor had gone from beet-red to a hue akin to a rotten pumpkin. “This is treason, Grumbleoaf! How dare you question my authority?”

Once again, Hamment Shugfoot stood; this time, he coughed awkwardly.

“Your Honor, may I examine the legal document my colleague Grumbleoaf has produced?”

Tiberius handed over the aged vellum and let the fancy solicitor read its contents, while the remaining villagers chatted anxiously. A few minutes later, Shugfoot returned the document and addressed the court, visibly paler than usual

“Your lordship, as much as I regret saying this, the challenge is perfectly legal and genuine. The Laws of St. Borgo are well-known to us solicitors and ingrained from our earliest days of training. To contest this would be, I’m afraid, quite ill-advised and, as the solicitor representing the village, I must advise you to reverse our recent rule change. We must allow the estate of Mr. Dorro—with Darwinna Thrashrack as its executor—to remain in control of its own and his estate. Barring, of course, any news of his death.”

“I am the law in Thimble Down, counselor!” barked the Mayor. “How dare you infer otherwise?”

“I’m merely trying to follow the rule of law which has been set in stone for the past seventeen-hundred years. You could try to overrule it, except for ….”

“Except for what?”

“Except for the St. Borgo’s Fourth Law, which states that attempts to overrule existing laws by a magistrate makes him liable for removal from office—and exile.”

Hamment knew that his chances of living in the Perch had just disappeared, but there was no going around the Codex.

“But I’m the magistrate!” bellowed the Mayor. “How can anyone put me in gaol?”

“According to the law, it only takes a simple hand vote from villagers present. Fifty would do it.”

The Mayor stared out at the room full of Halflings, many of them buzzing with excitement. “I dare you! Who has the nerve to vote me into gaol? I’d like to see any of you try!”

There was dead silence for a moment, but then gasps as one hand slowly ascended.

“Who is that? Who dares suggest I go to prison?”

“Me, that’s who!”

Mr. Mungo, the tavern keeper, stood up and addressed the court. “And anyone else who wants to see Mr. Dorro keep his rightful property can join me. If the bigwigs who run this village can steal his property, they can steal anyone’s!”

Suddenly, hands shot up all over the room, as folks were tired of the Mayor and his nefariously sneaky ways. Darwinna was busily counting hands, “… 46 … 47 … 48 … there are forty-nine hands, your lordship!”

“A-ha! Just as I expected,” snorted the odious Halfling, but a commotion interrupted him. In the throng stepped Bedminster Shoe, who had been in the loo and had no idea why everyone had their hands in the air. Not wanting to make a scene, the scribe lifted his hand as he took his seat, hoping no one would notice.

“Fifty!” screamed more than a few Thimble Downers, several of whom began to dance merry jigs around the library. “Put the Mayor in gaol!

The Mayor banged his gavel heavily on the table and shouted for everyone to clam up. Fuming with anger, he summoned Darwinna, Hamment, Tiberius and Osgood to the bench for a sidebar discussion.

“So, that’s the way it is, eh, Darwinna? Pretty crafty, I must admit,” he sneered. “And Hamment, you’re going along with circus, too?”

The slick solicitor eyed Darwinna and Grumbleoaf furtively before speaking. “Your lordship, I have no choice—the law is the law. Even if it comes at my own loss.”

The Mayor shot a glance at his ally Osgood Thrip and back again.

“So be it, Shugfoot. You’re own your own now—the Perch and the Library remain in the Winderiver estate, unless Dorro does the decent thing and dies in Fog Vale.”

He banged his gavel one last time and spoke to the rest of the Halflings. “The recent ruling by the village of Thimble Down is officially overturned and the Winderiver estate shall remain as it was. Case closed!”

In a heartbeat, he rose and departed with a glowering Thrip on his heels, while the rest of the Thimble Downers cheered again and followed them onto the cold, snowy lanes, dancing, laughing and singing.

Bedminster Shoe, Sheriff Forgo and Mr. Timmo ran up and hugged Darwinna Thrashrack, while the children jumped about in wild glee.

Grumbleoaf, for his part, merely snorted and shut his giant leather book, a look of quiet satisfaction on his jowly face.

“Darwinna?” Hamment Shugfoot came up behind her. “May I have a word? Please?”

She glanced at her compatriots and then stepped aside with Hamment.

“Dearest Darwinna, I know I haven’t behaved honorably in recent weeks, but it was my duty to serve the village as best I could. I didn’t have a choice.”

“What will you do now, Hamment? You’ve lost the Perch.”

“Oh fiddle-faddle, darling—it’s just a burrow. I still meant what I asked you the other day. Will you marry me? I will give you a life of glamour and excitement, I promise.”

Darwinna looked at Shugfoot’s striking good looks and, with his wealth combined with her own, knew he would give her a life many in Thimble Down would envy. She reached out and took his hands in hers.

“That would make me happy,” she cooed. “But only for a few weeks.”

“What? We would be perfect together.”

“I’m sorry, Hamment, but when I marry, it will be for love and to a Halfling who stands up for justice and champions the disempowered. I, for one, would not take money from the Mayor to blindly uphold the law.”

The solicitor bowed his head, knowing he was defeated.

“You’re entirely correct, Darwinna. I will try to be a better Halfling and someday, perhaps, you will change your mind about me. In the interim, we have our firm and our work. I will do better.”

Darwinna Thrashrack threw back her head and laughed at last.

“Oh Hamment, you are such a wonderful actor. You missed your calling! Sadly, our days as colleagues are also ending.”

Shugfoot froze on the spot. “You’re jesting, Darwinna!”

“Sorry, dear. I’m leaving Shugfoot, Thrashrack & Grumbleoaf, and I fear our friend Tiberius is as well. We’ve discussed the matter and have decided to launch our own partnership, one devoted entirely to defending the weak against the rich and big-headed. Goodbye, darling.”

Darwinna gave the solicitor a quick peck on the cheek and trotted out the building, followed by her friends and co-conspirators.

Behind her, Hamment Shugfoot found himself standing in the library, very much alone.

 

  • * *

 

He slammed his fist on the oak desktop—his conscience simply couldn’t stand it for another moment. For months, he’d buried his instincts deep inside, leaving them to fester. No longer.

After crafting a note with pen and ink, the big Halfling leapt from his chair and opened a nearby cabinet. From within, he pulled out a leather jerkin, which he donned quickly, followed by a shirt of chain mail, a helmet, and a number of weapons—a short sword, and a shield, and his favorite ash cudgel.

The Thimble Downer glanced at the note lying on his desk. Some would misunderstand it and think he’d run away, but he knew this was the right thing to do. He went outside to find his pony waiting for him, the beast laden with saddlebags of food and other provisions. The Halfling mounted and urged the creature onto one of the quiet lanes leading southward out of the village.

After a few miles, he tugged on the reins and turned dead East. He had a mission to fulfill and nothing would stop him on this cold winter’s night—there was a friend who needed his long-overdue help.

“Giddyap!”

The pony snorted in the cold and, together, they disappeared into the darkness.

[]Truckulus

Dorro listened to the snores of the giants around him.

They were encamped not far above Fog Vale, trying to get some rest before inevitable confrontation with the orkus; it was ironic, the bookmaster thought, that it would all be decided here. In all the thousands of square miles in the Grey Mountains, it would be here that the goblins would launch their attack, close to the prison farm where his woes began. The fellow couldn’t sleep as restless thoughts plagued him in the dark.

I can’t leave the prisoners there. They’re rapscallions and villains by the dozen, but many are from the Halfling home counties like me, Dorro fretted. There’s about to be a terrible battle here and quite likely, Fog Vale will be sacked and its inmates slaughtered on the spot.

The Thimble Downer didn’t know what to do. For all he knew, the snow-covered woods and screes surrounding them were full of monsters waiting to kill them in their sleep. But he was still bothered by the thought of the ignorant prisoners below. His mind flashed on poor, hapless Amos Pinchbottle.

Amos will die, the silly fool, and badly, too. And what about Saoirse?

This particularly troubled him as he was terribly fond of the giantess and didn’t want her injured either. Frankly, Dorro wished this whole bother would disappear and he could go back to the Perch and cook Wyll breakfast, as he did every morning. Thoughts of scrambled eggs, sausage, and slices of warm, buttery toast came into his mind unbidden—he pushed them away, his stomach aching with the memory.

Down the forested, rocky slope, the bookmaster knew the Halflings of Fog Vale lay asleep, blissfully unaware of the tragedy about to befall them, and it was at this moment that Dorro decided where his loyalties lay. He was a prisoner and owed no allegiance to Bill Thistle and his gangs of fierce goons.

Yet

He crept through the encampment, as if moving through a maze of shells of enormous tortoise shells—the lumpen forms of sleeping giants on the ground.

At last he found Saoirse and Truckulus by a large sycamore tree, snoring up a storm. Dorro was amazed that their ruckus hadn’t brought the entire goblin army down upon them. The bookmaster looked upon the giantess and was pleased she was asleep—using the skills of stealth possessed by any good Halfling, he bent over and gently kissed her on the cheek, so lightly it would only been perceived as a gentle breeze.

“What are you doing?”

Dorro froze in his tracks. “Where are you sneaking off to, rat?”

Behind him, the Thimble Downer became aware of a looming shadow, but he had already recognized the hissing voice—Truckulus.

“I ask you again, Halfling? If you are off to betray us, I will kill you where you stand.”

“Young sir, I’m s-s-s-sorry to have awakened you,” stammered Dorro. “I was merely off for a stroll. ‘Tis such a lovely evening ….”

“You lie poorly, little one.”

Truckulus had moved in closely and spoke in a quiet, but threatening voice. “I could kill you right now and no one would be the wiser. Even my mother, who seems fond of you, despite your low breeding.”

“Low breeding? I’ll have you know the Winderivers are a distinguished family in my part of the world,” he huffed in a whisper.

“To us, you are an inferior creature and a bane to the giants. Why do you think we call you Urk-bäg?”

“I have no idea.”

“It means that you are a sub-species,” sneered Truckulus. “For a giant, that means you are on the same level as a toad or salamander. To me, you’re a bug that should squished for bringing dishonor to our kind.”

“I don’t know why you hate me. I didn’t do anything to you or your mother.”

Dorro could hear the youth growling in the dark; he was venturing into dangerous territory. “I can’t understand why my mother tolerates you— Urk-bäg!”

The bookmaster paused. “This isn’t about me at all, Truckulus. This is about your mother. You’re jealous of our friendship!”

“How dare you, worm? Don’t you dare mention her!” The shadow grew loomed over Dorro. Then a hand grabbed him around the neck and began squeezing.

“I … can’t … breath ….”

“This will be easier than I thought,” said the youth. “Like stepping on a beetle ….”

Dorro was beginning to lose vision and blackness was closing in. He heard something crashing in the periphery and then he was dropped violently onto the ground, gasping for air. He sucked in a lungful heaving his chest. Someone was fighting nearby—had the goblins attacked?

The bookmaster rolled over just as a massive foot landed where his head had been.

Indeed, all the sleeping giants had been roused, torches were lit, and many faces were looking about angrily in the night. But they didn’t see goblins—no, there in the dim torchlight was the grappling forms of Truckulus and Saoirse bashing each other mercilessly on the snowy, rock-laden terrain. It was a horrific sight to Dorro, especially as he was still trying to find his breath and still his pounding heart. Yet he could not be silent.

“Stop! Stop now, I say!”

To his surprise, that’s what the mother and son did. They paused and looked about, their faces bruised and bleeding.

“It’s not worth it, Saoirse! He’s your son,” pled Dorro. “You should forgive his impetuousness—his hatred for me only comes from his love of you.”

“But … but—” The giantess was shocked and looked at Truckulus. “Why do you hate him?”

“Because he’s not my father! He’s a filthy mouse, nothing like the great Gruftang, yet you give him respect as if he were. My father is dead!”

Illumination broke upon Saoirse as she realized the weight of his words. “Nothing will replace your father, but ….” She looked at her friend. “I won’t lie; the Halfling reminded me what it was like to have a mate whom I could talk to. He is special to me.”

The giant also looked around at the others and saw their expressions—like Truckulus, they wanted nothing more than to be rid of Dorro, by death if necessary.

“My lady, I think I can solve this problem.” The voice was small and solemn.

“I’m leaving.”

“What?” Saoirse’s eyes flared wide. “You can’t—there are orkus everywhere.”

Dorro moved closer to her and touched her hand. “Saoirse, I was leaving when Truckulus found me; he acted out of love—perhaps jealously—but it came from love. I’m going back to Fog Vale to warn them of the impending battle. It’s a duty to my kind. Just as Truckulus wants to protect the giants from outsiders, I must do my part for the Halflings.”

The giant drew gasps from her kinsfolk when she put her arms around the Thimble Downer and hugged him. To them, it was an unnatural act, but the two friends didn’t care—they loved each other and had to say goodbye.

There were tears running down their faces as she spoke. “It’s the right thing to do, Dorro. I will miss you and your strange, funny ways.”

“I don’t make friends easily, but ours will remain special. It was almost like ….”

The bookmaster didn’t finish the sentence. So wrapped up in his life and career in Thimble Down, Dorro never had the inclination to find a wife, but Saoirse brought out feelings he didn’t know existed. It warmed him to learn that he actually had such sensibilities, but both knew such an attachment was beyond reason.

Neither, however, did they have time to think upon the matter, as the wider situation was spinning out of control.

“Dorro, get into the basket; I’ll take you to Fog Vale myself,” said the giantess firmly. “There is no time—after this ruckus, the goblins are surely massing nearby. Our element of surprise has vanished.”

The giantess found the basket and strapped it around her neck. “Get in.”

Surrounded by menacing giants and a rising army of orkus, the Halfling leapt into the unusual conveyance. Saoirse leapt up and motioned for two others to join her. They slipped into the snowy underbrush and began working their way downhill, as silently as possible—at least for giants.

Dorro was returning to Fog Vale.

[]A Cold Return

Dorro was skirting along the edge of a snowy pasture, hoping not to run into orkus who might retake him prisoner.

His flight down the scree had been harrowing, as Saoirse and the two other giants skirted goblin patrols and the odd troll or two. Their goodbye had been brief, as the giants needed to return to their camp and prepare for battle. And now Dorro was alone on the dark, bleak night, wondering what to do next.

There!

The Halfling peered into the gloom and saw a bit of fence marking the boundary of Fog Vale.

If I haven’t gained too much weight, I might be able to slip through the rails. C’mon Dorro, me lad, suck in your gut and squeeze!…

Happily, the fellow was able to get through easily, as he hadn’t had a square meal in months and was surely much thinner than his former self.

(His friends in Thimble Down probably wouldn’t have recognized him—and urged him to eat a lamb ‘n’ pea pie and an entire blueberry crumble, in order to fatten him up.)

Dorro slipped behind a leafless crabapple tree and began working his way through the orchard towards the Overseer’s hut, where Bill Thistle lived. The closer he got, the more Dorro realized he didn’t have much of a plan, other than just blurting out that the orkus army was about to attack. Either way, he didn’t have time to dwell on that fact as his whole scheme crumbled in an instant.

“Oy! Who’s there?” shouted a hoarse voice.

“Is it a goblin? Club ‘im to death!” bellowed another. “Bash ‘is brains in!”

“No, please, I am one of you!” hollered Dorro in defense. “I am here to help you.”

“Look Barney—an escapee.”

The first guard grabbed Dorro by the arm and pushed him to the ground roughly. “I caught the bugger!”

In a trice, the two goons grabbed the Thimble Downer and began hauling him towards the lean-to hut, throwing a few punches and kicks along the way for good measure. The one called Barney kicked in the door and they threw their prisoner to the floor.

“Look what we caught, Boss! A sneak-rat tryin’ to escape!” they hooted. “Should we toss ‘im back over the fence and let the goblins have their fun?”

Dorro heard heavy boots trudging towards him, making the floorboards squeak.

“Who is it? Flip the rat over. Oh-ho!….”

The bookmaster knew he was in trouble.

“So it’s Mr. Windy-Pants come home for a reunion. Did ja miss me, sweetie?”

At that Bill and his henchmen burst into laughing. “We thought ‘jus had been taken by them goblins, but nah, you were off for a lark in the woods. Was it fun? Are you all rested up?”

Dorro knew he had very little time. “I was taken by the goblins. I escaped!”

“Hah! No one escapes from the orkus. The only way to be free of ‘em is through death. Considering that you’re here and ain’t dead leads me to think yer just a liar.”

“I’m not, Bill! We’re in great trouble. There’s a huge goblin army about to descend on Fog Vale. They have trolls, too!”

The Thimble Downer was in a panic.

“Oh, how convenient. You run away and then come back with a cock ‘n’ bull story about some army. To my eyes, I promoted you to head cook, giving you a cushy spot at Fog Vale, yet you still scarpered away. And now that you’ve been in the Grey Mountains for a few weeks, you’re realized how good ya had it here and want to come back. Aw, ain’t that swell, fellas?”

“Bill, trust me—I’ve seen them! They’re ….”

Dorro wasn’t able to finish the sentence as Bill kicked him hard in the stomach, knocking the wind out of his lungs. Moments later, he was being dragged away again, violently.

In short order, the Halfling was thrown on a hard floor and heard the clank of a gaol-cell door slammed shut behind him. Lying there and trying to find his breath, the Thimble Downer looked at the ceiling and wondered how it had gone so wrong. This was not how it was supposed to go—Bill Thistle was supposed to have heard news of the goblin and troll forces, and beat a quick retreat out of the Vale with the prisoners.

“I see ya’s come back—did ja miss yer ol’ pal, Windy?”

Dorro groaned, not just from the bruises on his face and body, but from the sound of the person speaking. He knew it all too well.

“Hello Amos,” he gasped.

“Aye, ya remembers my name—Amos Pinchbottle, yer ol’ bosom buddy! I’m touched, really I am. Where ya been, Windy?”

The bookmaster rose to his feet unsteadily and found a stool to sit on in the dark cell. “I’ve been with the giants—the same ones that freed you.”

“Well, yer still a prisoner! Ya ain’t too good at this, is ya? Har!”

Amos started laughing and hacking at once, slapping his knee joyously in the adjoining cell.

“Amos, stop acting like a fool for once!” snapped Dorro. “We’re all in great trouble.”

“I already know that, Dorro, me bucko. That’s why we’re in gaol.”

“By the way, why are you here, Amos? I thought you loved life in Fog Vale?”

“Oh I do, I do! But one night, a scunner named Jasper Willy stole blankets from my beloved cousins Woodsy and Barker so I punched him.”

“You’re locked up for punching another prisoner? I can’t imagine that’s a terrible sin around here.”

Amos Pinchbottle smirked. “Well, I punched him about forty-two times and tossed the rat-bastard through a glass window. Broke his arm and a few teeth, though Bill Thistle said I’m being gaoled more for the bother of replacing the glass than beating up Jasper. I felt bad about the window, I did.”

Dorro rolled his eyes. Only in Fog Vale, he thought.

“Seriously, Amos, we’re in peril. The goblins are about to attack and kill us all. And they have trolls. Doesn’t anyone care around here?”

Amos Pinchbottle looked thoughtful for a moment.

“Eh—could be worse. At least it will be a bit o’ excitement before we be dead—can’t ask for more than that, Windy. I’ve been runnin’ me whole life, from one bit o’ muck to the next.”

“Really, ol’ Amos is gettin’ tired. If it’s time for me to check out, fine by me. Bit of excitement, some flashes of light, and then it’s time for Mrs. Pinchbottle’s baby boy to leave this ruddy world behind. Now if you don’t mind, me friend, I want to grab a few more hours of sleep before the end of the world. Nighty-night!”

At that, Amos Pinchbottle curled up on his cot and slipped off to slumber, leaving Dorro Fox Winderiver alone and helpless. The end was drawing near.

[]Heartwood of the Forest

“Mr. Timmo! Mr. Timmo!”

The door of the metalsmith shop banged open and two bolts of lightning shot through.

“Oh dear!” shrieked Timmo in the back room, dropping a tool.

He was surrounded by hammers, awls, hole punches, tin snips, and other tools of his trade, many of which were clanking loudly as he jumped out of his chair.

“You’re going to give me heart failure. Now what’s this nonsense about?”

“We found something important!” said Wyll, a breath before Cheeryup could.

Irritated that he beat her, she added, “It’s another old letter about the heartwood!”

“Calm down, children, and tell me about it. Here, have a biscuit first.”

The younglings thanked him and helped themselves to the plate of oatmeal cookies Timmo had been enjoying with his afternoon tea.

“Iffs reery gud!” mumbled Wyll, mid-chew.

“Swallow your food first, dear boy, and pray continue,” said Timmo sternly, yet with a twinkle in his eye. “At the very least, I don’t want you to choke before you tell me about your discovered.”

“Just read it yourself, Mr. Timmo,” chirped Cheeryup, handing over the ancient vellum. “This is what we’ve been waiting for. We found it in the folder we found at the library.”

“Which I found,” snipped the boy.

“And then I stole and saved the day, thank you very much.”

“That’s enough, you two. Let me see here ….”

 

  • * *

 

June 16, 1668, A.B.

 

[On the Matter
of the Heartwood]

 

[By Prof. Crastus Beckett,
Department of Natural Philosophies,
College of St. Borgo]

 

I have continued my work on the matter of the Heartwood throughout the Winter and Spring, journeying twice to the environs of the Great Wood, near Thimble Down, a Small, but Lively hamlet to our south and west.

This time, however, I made quite a Breakthrough, as I have actually found and spoken to a true Heartwood myself. This has been corroborated by my colleague, Prof. Petula Tumnutch, also of the university, who traveled with me. She is quite interested in this area of Intellectual Curiosity.

The Heartwood I met was quite Elusive. It took me many Months just to find his Name and, even then, he was Reluctant to speak—and for Good Reason, as it turned out.

The Halfling in question is thought by Many in Thimble Down to be nothing more than the village Drunkard. He’s a wee chap with a Pointy, Squinty face, floppy Hat, and deeply Wrinkled skin. In fact, it looks like Tree Bark itself.

Through many Inquiries, I finally found him and, even then, he would not talk, not until I began to Procure him unhealthy Quantities of whiskey and ale. Finally, after Many Evenings of liberal Libation, he took me into his Confidence and told me Wondrous things.

(Though I was dubious at first of his methods, he advised that the strong Spirits helped him maintain his Halfling form, plus they made his nose feel all bubbly and tickly.)

The role of the Heartwood is, simply put, to act as Guardian of the Great Wood and all Trees within the Halfling Kingdoms. Furthermore, he speaks with all Living Things in the Wood and they Respond, be it Fish, Tree, or Reptile. He talks to Birds almost daily, he added, and says he counts a few Owls and Nuthatches among his dearest friends.

It sounds Preposterous, but the more time I spent with this strange Fellow, the more inclined I am to Regard his comments as genuine. Pray, let me continue.

I hired this odd Thimble Downer to give me a Tour of the Great Wood at additional Expense, as well as provide a wineskin that he could sip as we Perambulated. I asked many questions, subtly trying to find out about his Birth or Place of Origin. When the Halfling could not tell me Where or Whence he was born, I pressed him further, to which he admitted that he was Born of the Forest, his mother an Alder tree and father a Heartwood like himself. I laughed at first, but He grew irritated with me.

From his belt, the fellow produced a knife—at first, I thought he was to attack myself and Tumnutch, but instead he Inflicted a Grievous Gash upon his own arm. I feared the Gent would bleed out and Die in our Presence.

Instead, he showed me the Wound, which resembled Nothing More than a jagged cut upon Tree Bark. He allowed me to use the Blade to further probe the wound and, as I can Honestly Attest, there was no Blood or Tissue to be found. I inquired how a Halfling could not have Blood, to which he laughed and replied in a crude vernacular, “That’s simple, Big Nose—I ain’t no Halfling!”

I also asked him, “How old are You, sir?” to Which he replied, “At least Three Hunn’erd Years old, though probably more.”

I was Stunned, to say the Least, but Then Prompted him to on the simple question of Mortality — “Can you die, sir? Or be chopped Down like a Tree?”

This seemed to Amuse the queer little fellow, as he became overcome with fits of laughter at my Expense.

“No, of course not, ye fool,” he cackled. “We can only leave the Wide Green Open”—his name, mind you, for the land we live upon—“by way of lightning strike, fungus or most dreaded of all, Root Rot.”

I jest not.

Thinking we thought him a Prankster, he bade me to Again take his Blade and Impale him in the Midriff. I was reluctant, but Petula took the initiative and Jabbed him fiercely. Her knife merely protruded from the Heartwood’s body as if Stuck in the Side of a fence, the creature laughing gaily at our Folly.

He added that neither blade nor arrow could pierce him, though he did not like Fire, nor Smoke. He said they made him Itchy.

As the little Heartwood made ready to Depart, I begged him to share with us his name. He smiled warmly and said he was known by many names by many folk—be they Halfling, tree, animal or fish.

“To your Kind, however, most know me as Mr. Dalbo.”

Then with a wink, he disappeared into a Large Bank of Shrubbery and, Lo, he was Gone.

That is my Tale and I stand by it. If you doubt my account, please discuss the matter with Prof. Tumnutch. Everything I have Written here is True and I swear by Every Word.

 

[—Prof. Cras. Beckett
College of St. Borgo]

 

  • * *

 

Timmo drew in a deep breath; his mind was reeling in a dozen different directions. Then he made a rare impulsive decision.

“Children, let us grab some shovels and find Minty Pinter. Immediately!”

The three ran out of the metalsmithery and flew down the lane towards town.

 

  • * *

 

Mr. Timmo, Wyll, Cheeryup and a confused Minty trudged through the frosty terrain north of the village, making for the Great Wood.

“This is daft, Timmo,” sneered the tiny tinker, his short legs making him stumble in the snow. “How will we find the grave in this muck?”

“Because, Minty, I have a compass. The gravesite is exactly twenty-seven paces to the Southwest of the Meeting Tree’s trunk. I marked it during Dalbo’s funeral and committed that fact to memory.”

They marched on, ignoring the bitter winds and big clouds that blocked sunlight for minutes at a time. The quartet finally paused and looked about in confusion.

“Something isn’t quite right, Timmo.”

The metalsmith was equally baffled. “There’s the Meeting Tree, but … half the forest seems to have disappeared. Are we in the right place?”

Cheeryup piped up, “No question about it! This is the field—we’ve played here so many times it’s like a second home.”

Approaching the venerable Meeting Tree, Mr. Timmo looked about some more.

“There are quite a few trees missing, yet I don’t see any signs of cutting and violence. It’s like they walked off, which is ridiculous.”

“What about Dalbo’s grave?” asked the girl. “Get out your compass.”

Mr. Timmo pulled the intricate metal device from his pocket and began to calculate his bearings. “From the trunk, the grave is in this direction.”

He wandered off as if in a haze, until he simply stopped and looked down. The others rushed to join him and froze on the spot.

“This can’t be possible, Timmo,” offered Minty, scratching his head.

“Oh, I believe it’s entirely too possible.”

The four Thimble Downers stared downward, into the pit where Dalbo Dall had been buried.

It was empty.

[]Onslaught

His return to Fog Vale had been a fiasco. Instead of saving the day, Dorro had mucked everything up and was now in a dirty gaol cell, worse off than ever.

With no alternative, he followed Amos’ lead, falling to sleep miserably, his face sore from the beating. The bookmaster knew that somewhere in the hills surrounding the penal colony was a small contingent of giants, but also a vast army of goblins and trolls bent on destroying everything living under the sun.

Dorro’s mind became troubled as he drifted downward. In his dark dreams, the bookmaster had visions of the Perch, but now it was somehow larger as Saoirse lived there, too, along with Wyll and Truckulus.

Outside its doors, Dorro’s vegetable garden was draped in fog and mist, and full of threats—he knew goblins were hiding in the tomato patch, waiting to capture and torture him—but he felt calm knowing the giantess was there to protect him. She would always protect him, he knew.

Dorro jerked awake to the sounds of running and screaming outside the gaol. His brain still fuzzy from the nightmare, he nevertheless was aware what was happening—the orkus had arrived.

“What the hell is goin’ on?” shrieked Amos Pinchbottle, who pressed his face against the bars of his cell frantically.

“Mebbe you were right after all, Windy—this be the goblins come to finish us off!”

A door flew open and in ran Bullock, Salty and Hammersmith, the bounty hunters who’d brought Dorro and Amos to Fog Vale all those weeks ago. Salty ran to each cell and unlocked them.

“C’mon, ya fools! We need every Halfling we can get!”

Bullock followed up, “Here, take a sword and a shield. Half the goblins in the mountains are streaming into the Vale and come to wipe us out. You’ll either fight for your lives—or just give up and die. I don’t care which—just stay the hell out of my way!”

The Battle of Fog Vale had begun.

 

  • * *

 

His brain clearing, Dorro peered into the gloaming of dawn. The layout of Fog Vale included a number of huts surrounded by acres of farmed pastureland. The ground was broken up with wooden fences and low hedgerows.

Just a way off, Bill Thistle was shouting at troops and prisoners to set up perimeters to deflect the goblin horde, as foolhardy as that might be. Indeed, there were only about two hundred Halflings in the Vale and perhaps twenty times that many in orkus coming to destroy them. It wouldn’t be a long fight, Dorro mused.

Reflecting on the Battle of the Burrows a half year early—an epic slaughter that had nearly destroyed Thimble Down—Dorro was more versed in combat than most. He knew, instinctively, that if he wanted to live, he would have to work for it, thus he hunkered behind a fothergilla bush until he’d decided what to do.

The bookmaster would fight when the time came, but conversely, he neither would he follow reckless orders and die unnecessarily. No, Dorro Fox Winderiver was too methodical and fussy for that to happen; he would die in his own way and of his own accord. Preferably in his own bed aged well over one hundred, but that remained to be seen.

“There—over in the wheat field!” A guard yelled not twenty feet from where Dorro was decamped, though some would call it hiding. “The goblins are breakin’ through!”

The bookmaster peered through the fothergilla as best he could and saw the danger. About thirty orkus had leapt the fence and were fighting a handful of prisoners, few of them versed in combat. Sadly, he thought, they’d all be dead soon.

“Loose the mastiffs!” That voice, he recalled, was Barnacle, the master of the hounds and Bill Thistle’s second in command. “Shred ‘em, me luvlies—rip ‘em to pieces!”

At that, Dorro saw Barnacle and his handlers drop their leashes, as a dozen giant black hounds streaked across the pasture. The ensuing violence was terrifying, the mastiffs leaping on the goblins and biting and clawing them savagely.

The orkus fought back, but what struck Dorro most was the harrowing sounds they made, a mix of eerie whooping, shrieking, and grunting. The hounds were decimating the goblin ranks—the Thimble Downer knew that if they had a hundred mastiffs, this battle would turn quickly.

Instead, the goblin whoops brought fifty more of their troops over the fence to counterattack. Tragically, this skirmish ended quickly—both the mastiffs and unfortunate defenders were brought down with black goblin darts and arrows. It was a bloodbath, plain and simple.

“Fire!” Dorro jerked his head skyward to see a torrent of arrows coming from somewhere to his left. “Keep it going, boys. Take them beasties out!”

The bookmaster spied a line of Fog Vale archers behind a hedgerow, shooting volley after volley of arrows at the attackers in the field. In short order, many of the goblins were struck by the deadly shafts, horrifically in the head, neck and eye.

The remaining orkus retreated back into the woods beyond, no doubt planning their next assault. For a moment, it was eerily quiet.

“Hold!” shouted Hammersmith. “Save yer arrows, boys. Them monsters will be back soon enough, you can count on it.”

Dorro sat on the ground, wondering what to do next, when his peace was interrupted by an unwelcome presence. “Thar you are, Windy me pal!” Amos Pinchbottle sidled up beside the bookmaster in his bushy redoubt. “You found a good hidin’ spot, chum.”

“I’m not hiding, Amos!” snorted Dorro. “This is a strategic vantage point, allowing me to make critical combat decisions.”

The miscreant looked dumbly at his friend. “Oh. I thought you wuz chicken like me.”

“Never, sir! I am a Winderiver and we have bravery running like fire through our veins.”

“Just sayin’—it looked like hiding to me,” said Amos sheepishly, while Dorro’s face turned increasing pink and fuchsia. “I’m sawrry…”

“Hey you two—get out here!” Some roughs hands reached into the fothergilla and dragged Dorro and Amos onto the turf.

“So, we have some cowards in here, eh?” It was Salty and Peasley, two of the nastiest Halflings in Fog Vale. “What should we do wit ‘em, boss?”

Bill Thistle approached, his lopsided grin more sadistic than ever.

“Oh, I think sumthin’ special would be appropriate for Mr. Windy-Pants and his friend. I think we send ‘em back to the fence—you two will take the forward position. When the goblins attack again, see, you gents will be the first to greet ‘em. Ain’t that nice?”

Dorro knew he’d just received a death sentence. While Bill, Bullock, Salty and the other ruffians smirked, he briefly thought of making a run for it, yet knew he’d be taken down with arrows before reaching twenty paces.

Strangely, he brightened—the Thimble Downer figured his suffering would be over soon. He would never see his Wyll again, but his friends Bedminster and Mr. Timmo would care for the boy in his absence; a quick orkus sword stroke and it would all go black. There were worse ways to go, he figured.

“C’mon Amos, it’s time to do our bit,” he said, feigning a stiff upper lip. “Let’s get this over with.”

Amos jutted out his bottom lip and pouted. He didn’t want to die after all and felt bad for all the lousy things he’d done in life, but it was too late. The two Halflings began trudging to the fence line, knowing their time was short.

As they walked through the cold dawn air, Dorro pulled his jacket a little tighter around him and took a final look at the trees, grass, and hills. He loved the architecture of trees in winter, when the leaves were gone and one could admire their graceful forms. He wanted his final thoughts to be about beautiful things that mattered to him.

Dorro and Amos, who was still sad and sniffling, finally reached the position and crouched behind a wooden fence post. This is where it would all end.

The bookmaster reached out his hand. “Goodbye, Amos. Let’s part as friends and comrades.”

The scamp from Fell’s Corner reciprocated. “I don’t wanna die, Mr. Dorro. I ain’t been a good lad in my life, but I wanted to have one last beer at the Hanging Stoat before my time came. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

Dorro patted him on the soldier and thought about his suppers at the tavern with Wyll and Cheeryup, tippling a warm cup of honeygrass whiskey and savoring a beef chop with fragrant, crusty bread and butterbeans.

These would serve as nice thoughts to hold in his mind for a few minutes, before death found him. Under the forest eaves, he heard that strange whooping sound again – the war cries of goblin fighters. Lots of them.

They were coming.

[]The Battle of Fog Vale

“Just close your eyes, Amos,” counseled the bookmaster. “It will be over quick as a wink! Keep the happiest thought possible in your mind you can—try hard.”

Dorro, shut his lids and thought about the friends and family, the library, and his garden and orchard. But mostly about Wyll and young Cheeryup.

Another part of his mind heard the orkus approaching, stepping on the ground and snickering at the sight of two defenseless runts kneeling in the snow. It would be an easy kill. Under no circumstances, however, would he open his eyes. The Thimble Downer waited for death.

The next sound to reach his ears was a droning noise, one that made the goblins chatter with anxiety, as if they had no idea from whence it came. The final sound was more of a blast, a cataclysm of trees, branches and roots cracking and exploding in fury.

The two Halflings hugged each other in terror as bits of wood and sawdust showered them, two insignificant mites in the middle of a maelstrom. Dorro squinted his eyes open just a smidgen so he might know why death was taking so long.

I thought it might be a nice, swift sword stroke—y’know, zip!—and I’m dead. No, no, no, this is not the Winderiver way! he huffed to himself.

We like a nice, tidy death. No waiting around for lazy goblins!

 

  • * *

 

But death never came. Dorro was more than surprised to discover the real cause for the underachieving assassins.

Giants. Hundreds of them.

A heartbeat later and both he and Amos were scooped in the air, the latter screaming like a wee bairn. Dorro looked up in the fierce visage of Saoirse who cradled the two like fresh eggs she didn’t want to crack. He glowed at the sight of the giantess—once again, she had saved him.

Saoirse stomped on more than a few orkus as she ran, making the ground quake and shake with each footfall. On and on she jogged, back across the field towards the huts of Fog Vale and a contingent of very frightened guards and prisoners who didn’t know if she was friend or foe. They raised their bows, pikes, and swords just in case.

At the last minute, Dorro cried out, “Put down your weapons! The giants are here! The giants are here to save us!”

Most of the fighters lowered their axes and knifes, but Bullock—never the brightest bounty hunter—decided Saoirse was bigger and uglier than he and therefore was an enemy. He jumped over a low defensive barrier and charged the giant with his pikestaff poised for the kill.

Alas, poor Bullock was met by Saoirse’s left foot. She booted the foolish guard into the air like a ball and he ended up in a nearby hemlock tree, his neck well and truly broken.

She turned and howled at the defenders. “Get ready to fight, tiny warriors! There are many orkus and not enough Halflings or giants. It will be a horrible battle, but you will strike with every nerve you have.”

Saoirse lowered Dorro and Amos to the earth and bade them return to the battle line behind the barricade. She looked at Dorro sternly.

“Stay safe, dear friend” was all the giantess said before returning to aid her comrades in terrible combat.

Across the field, the bookmaster could see the giants tearing into the goblins with horrifying force, but the enemy numbered in the thousands.

How can the giants survive? he fretted.

From another corner of the pasture, a fresh brigade of roughly fifty goblin insurgents burst from the forest, charging directly for the Fog Vale defenders.

Bill Thistle leapt up on the barricade and shouted, “This is it, boys! Guard or prisoner, I expect you all to fight for your lives. If you do your job, I will consider reducing yer terms of exile and send ya home early—I have that authority. Here they come, me stout lads! Now give it yer best and ….”

Bill never finished the sentence. A goblin arrow struck him cleanly in the left eye and he was dead before he hit the ground, an inglorious end to a sordid life.

So ends the saga of Bill Thistle; he shan’t be missed, rued Dorro. Now come on, lad—you’ve fought these monsters before!

At that, even the bookmaster jumped up and engaged the enemy, though he noticed Amos Pinchbottle scurrying back to the fothergilla bush to cower in fear. A goblin whipped a chain mace at Dorro’s head, missing it by inches, giving him time to deliver a goodly slice to the beastie’s arm and sending it off howling in pain.

Next to him, guards like Barnacle, Peasley, Salty and Hammersmith all engaged the enemy, as did Amos’ incarcerated cousins Barker and Woodsy. At one point, Barnacle—suddenly promoted the chieftain of Fog Vale—cried for his troops to rally and push the invaders back, but it seemed hopeless.

There were too many orkus and, no question, not enough real soldiers within their own ranks to make a difference. Most were thieves sent to Fog Vale for petty offenses, not Halflings of action.

A few giants came to engage the goblins from the rear, giving them cheer and hope, but it was dashed by another sight—trolls. If giants were large, lumpy creatures, then trolls were their horrible cousins, massive beasts with bulbous grey-skinned faces, muscly chests and arms, and thick necks. The giants and trolls clashed violently, shaking the ground and making more than a few Halflings fall to the ground.

Again the goblins pressed upon the Fog Vale fighters and they lost ground. One by one, Dorro saw the defenders fall—Salty and Hammersmith fought fiercely, but each was felled by mace or arrow, perhaps just desserts for lives ill-led.

Peasley ran off in terror, yet he took a curved hatchet to the back and dropped onto his face; a few goblins leapt on his back and finished the grisly job. Woodsy and Barker spied Amos hiding in the fothergilla and ran to hide with him, but only made it within a few feet of the bush. They were stomped on by raging trolls, their horrific deaths in plain sight of their cowardly cousin.

Dorro was hacking away at a single orkus warrior, but tiring quickly—it couldn’t go on much longer. Worse, their clanging had caught the attention of a troll who came lumbering closer. Sensing its presence, the goblin drew off, waiting for the behemoth to finish the job.

Sadly for him, the troll didn’t care who he killed and promptly stepped on its smaller comrade, crushing the orkus to death. Next he turned for Dorro, who could sense the malice and darkness in the troll’s mind. It was a dumb animal, a creature covered in rippling muscles and bred for the sole purpose of killing. Dorro was too exhausted to fight on and dropped to his knees in the cold, blood-hued snow.

Finally, he welcomed death with gratitude.

[]Friends

Even as the troll approached, Dorro sensed disaster.

Many of the crummy huts within Fog Vale were on fire and he choked on the smoke and ash. Guards and prisoners lay in the snow, many dead, others writhing from deep sword gashes. Once again, Dorro closed his eyes and tried to focus on Wyll, the last thought he wanted to hold in his mind before it all went black. Yet once again, he was to cheat death’s polite invitation.

“For Thimble Down!” rang in his ears, forcing him to open his lids to see a most uncanny sight.

A big Halfling appeared out of the haze and laid into the troll with his short sword, hacking at its limbs. The monster howled in pain as his attacker cut a leg tendon and forced the beast down onto one knee.

That’s all it took for the Halfling to deliver a sweeping arc upwards, severing an artery in the troll’s neck, spraying them all with dark blood as the fell beast crashed to earth, dead.

“Forgo?” cried the bookmaster. “What—who –how? Where did you come from?”

The Sheriff turned and grabbed his friend, “Nevermind, Winderiver!” he snarled in his famously gruff voice. “We gotta get you the hell outta here and let the fresh troops do their bit.”

“Don’t forget Amos! He’s hiding over there!”

“You gotta be kiddin’ me?” he barked. “I just rode a hundred miles to save your backside and you want me to protect that lying, useless sack of oats, Amos Pinchbottle. Holy hell!”

Sheriff Forgo dutifully dashed to the fothergilla and reached in; sure enough, his hand came out grasping the ear of the miserable wretch, howling in pain.

“Let’s go! Now!”

Dorro was thrilled to hear Forgo’s loud roar one more time, even if they’d all be dead in a minute. “Ummm, what other troops, Sheriff, if I might ask?”

“Duck!” The lawman shoved Dorro aside and clobbered a goblin with his cudgel named Gwendolin, stoving the freak’s head in. “Good girl!” he roared. Then he nodded left.

You could have knocked Dorro Fox Winderiver over with a feather at what he beheld.

In the midst of the disaster was a whirling dervish of a figure that looked just like—in fact, it was!—Malachite Molly, the dwarf fighter who had been defending Halfling borders for years [you might remember her from the tale Death of a Dwarf. She was hacking and chopping at everything in sight, a wild grin on her faces; no question, the dwarf huntress loved to fight, almost frighteningly so.

Behind her, were others Dorro recognized—the Northland digger Crumble with his brothers Flume, Two-Toes, and Magpie. The goblins and trolls seemed to wither and evaporate under their violent assault.

Some orkus climbed on top of the flaming huts and leapt onto the dwarfs in a surprise attack. The bookmaster was even more shocked to many of them impaled with arrows before they hit the ground. He became aware of tall, lithe creatures charging through the battlefield—elves! Hundreds of them, along with dozens and dozens more giants and dwarfs.

“Hail, friend of the Woodland folk—I see you are still courting trouble.”

Dorro looked up, squinting at a towering figure before him.

[_ “Tol- … Tol ]- … _Toldir?” he stammered, “Can it really be you?”

The elf smiled and laid a hand on the Thimble Downer’s shoulder. “Yes, it’s me. You might also recognize Baldar and Parahir over a way.”

Dorro turned his head and saw the tall dark warrior and the shorter, stouter one firing bolt after bolt into the trolls, many of whom were fleeing in terror at their change in fortune. [Of course, you recall these elves’ valiant role in Thimble Down.]

The Thimble Downer hadn’t seen these Woodland elves for nearly a year, not since the tragedy of Ned Rumple and his accomplice, the late Bill Thistle, former Overseer of Fog Vale. Now both were dead and justly so.

With the combined onslaught of giants, elves, and dwarves, the goblin and troll army began to crumble and its combatants retreated out of Fog Vale and into the foothills of the Grey Mountains.

Many of the fleeing goblins fled to the woods—just as they crossed the river and headed East, they appeared to simply vanish. The bookmaster could scarcely believe his eyes, but it seemed that trees were swarming upon the banks and descending upon the enemy, beating them with sharp branches or strangling with tentacle-like roots. Dorro blinked several times, trying to make himself believe it wasn’t happening, but of course, it was.

Toldir put his hand on the little fellow’s shoulder.

“The Wide Green Open is angry with the dark, foul creatures and has vowed to ruin them forevermore. The trees are among her greatest weapons of war—a fact very few know. I surmise that very few of the orkus or trolls will reach their caves. It is the end of their world.”

All about them, the sounds of war began to diminish, and the cold March air grew quiet and still. Dwarves and elves flushed out and destroyed the remaining goblins, as well as sought to aid the injured. Others began the grim task of removing the dead, piling up dead goblins and trolls to be burned, while carefully bringing the bodies of fallen Halflings to a quiet place.

Of the Fog Vale guards, only Barnacle had survived, along with a surprising number of prisoners who had fought for their freedom. He was so moved by their efforts that—as acting Overseer of the penal colony—he promised to draw up pardons for each and send them on their way home as soon as they were able.

As a result of this cataclysm, Barnacle became a changed Halfling and dedicated the remainder of his life to helping the misguided and less fortunate rather than punish them with cruelty. He went on to live a long and satisfying life, as well he should.

Dorro, meanwhile, was in a daze and thought he might faint from all the excitement. Then a voice distracted him.

“Oy, Mr. Dorro! It’s me!” The bookmaster whipped his head around. “’Tis me, yer ol’ friend Aramina Wump … I mean, Aramina Crumble.”

Dorro saw the bloodied dwarf fighter—also known as Malachite Molly—with her new husband and his brothers coming upon him. They were all exhausted, but exhilarated by battle.

“Good to see you again, Mr. Dorro—yer lookin’ well, all things considered,” said Crumble in his typically polite manner.

“Crumble, how are you faring?”

“I’m enjoying life on the frontier with my Molly. And you should see our wagon, sir—it’s the best blacksmithery on wheels and I can repair a blade in a half a tick, I can!”

Dorro was so dumbfounded that he couldn’t respond—he just smiled and nodded like a simpleton, waving at Aramina and the brothers. It was all too much for him to comprehend.

Of course, had Nurse Pym been there, she would have known he was suffering from battle shock and put him to bed instantly, perhaps with some toast and tea. Toldir, at least, had a certain presence of mind and led the Halfling off the field of battle to a wooded bower where he could rest, along with Sheriff Forgo and the blubbering Amos Pinchbottle who had lost his cousins.

In short order, the elf Parahir appeared and started a small fire, while Baldar produced several freshly caught rabbits and winter roots to stew. The savory fragrance soon filled the air, beckoning a wonderful meal to come, while Toldir bade Dorro drink a hot broth into which he had crushed strange herbs.

Minutes later, the Thimble Downer fell fast asleep and began dreaming like a wee babe, safe at home in its cradle.

[]The Dogcart

“Wake up, sleepy nob!”

Dorro was still dreaming when he felt a finger poking him in the side. “C’mon or I’ll eat all yer grub!”

His eyelids flickered open to find the mug of Amos Pinchbottle leering at him and digging into a bowl of some delicious-smelling concoction.

“He’s right, my friend, you need to regain your strength. Come, eat.”

Dorro sat up to see Toldir sitting nearby, inspecting an assortment of notched arrows, some that were his and others he’d found on the battlefield. He would need them again. “Parahir, serve our guest some of your fine soup.”

The thicker elf shrugged and poured out a bowlful, handing it over. Dorro tucked in, demolishing the rabbit stew in record time, must to the pleasure of Parahir—he was an excellent trail cook, one of the reasons the elf was so valued by his fellow Woodland hunters.

“I wuz wondering when you’d wake up.” Sheriff Forgo appeared in the bower. “We need to walk—I was told that a friend needs you. Now.

The bookmaster knew this couldn’t be good. He thanked Toldir and Parahir for their hospitality, and followed Forgo back onto the battlefield.

“How long was I asleep?” Dorro looked around at the carnage littering the pasture. Most of the bodies had been removed, but blood and signs of violence dappled the snowy expanse. The penal colony of Fog Vale was in ruins, all of its wooden huts burned to the ground or destroyed by trolls.

“Only a few hours.”

“How did we win? It was all so incredible to me—I was sure we would be overrun and killed.”

Forgo smiled. “It’s an uncanny thing. I ran into Crumble and Malachite Molly on my way down into the Vale, and we bumped into this contingent of dwarf fighters. By the time we got here, we had about five hundred Northmen, most of ‘em itching for a scrap. Molly may be off her rocker, but the gal can hack goblin heads. I never seen anyone tear into a battle line like that dwarf. Aramina is relentless.”

“It’s a bit frightening, I agree—just be glad she’s on our side. And Crumble seems happy; perhaps they were made for each other after all. Where are we going, Sheriff?”

Forgo looked grim. “It’s the giantess. One of the dwarfs said she’d been calling your name.”

“No! Not Saoirse!” wailed Dorro. “Tell me she lives—”

The bookmaster couldn’t bear it if she was mortally injured; she’d sacrificed for him so many times and there had been no way to repay her.

“There,” was all Forgo said, pointing fifty paces to their left.

Dorro stopped and grabbed the Sheriff’s arm for a second. “Tell me it’s not so.” He let go and approached the she-giant cautiously. Saoirse was on her knees, huddled and cradling something in her arms.

It was the corpus of her son, Truckulus.

The giant held his body close, her eyes red and filled with tears. “I told him to stay back, but Trucky was so insistent—he wanted to fight and show he was a great warrior. He wanted to make his father Gruftang proud and me how grown-up he was. Truckulus was assaulted by five trolls at once.”

“My lady … I’m so sorry.”

“I’m sorry too, Dorro. The boy was never kind to you, but he was really just angry at me. I should have never taken him into exile with me,” said the giantess. “I was selfish and wanted my baby boy with me. Truckulus never forgave me. And now this.”

Dorro had no more words; he simply laid his head on her shoulder and they cried together.

 

  • * *

 

As they had several times before, Dorro and Saoirse bade their farewells, though this time was the most painful. Other giants from the Grey Mountains carefully bound the boy’s corpus in cloths for the long journey to the East; there, she would bury him in a distant pass.

Saoirse had many lonely months ahead of her, he knew—Dorro wished he could have come and kept her company, but he was needed in the West, where a certain nephew was waiting. They spoke just a few words, both knowing they both possessed a depth of feeling that transcended the fact she was a giant and he, a wee Halfling, but they knew it was for naught.

“You go take care of that boy of yours, Dorro—he needs you more than I do,” said the lady. “Let us part as friends and each much better for having known the other.”

The bookmaster was transfixed by her wisdom and gave her another hug before she departed. The army of giants disappeared into the woods beyond the river, pulling a creaky wagon built of old, weathered wood that bore Truckulus to his final rest. It was an image Dorro would remember for the remainder of his days.

The giants also promised to secure the goblins’ horrible caverns, in case they found any Halfling slaves left behind; Dorro hoped Otis Jones and the others had escaped and found their way home. The caves would then be destroyed, so no other fell beasts could occupy their dark, evil environs.

In short order, he and Sheriff Forgo made plans to leave and many of the former prisoners had already departed westward, clutching their pardons and hoping for new lease on life. The Woodland elves promised them safe passage for half the journey, before heading south for better hunting and foraging as Spring beckoned. Yet it was still cold, snowy Winter for a few more days and as they departed Fog Vale, a freezing drizzle began to fall.

Dorro and Forgo also said goodbye to their friends from the Northern Realm. Crumble promised to visit Thimble Down again and bring his son Orli, who had become fast friends with Wyll a few months earlier (the lad was still in Gildenhall; he had taken an apprenticeship to learn the arcane digging secrets of his kind. Crumble was very proud of him, as were his uncles and new stepmother).

With Dorro, Forgo, and Amos in a dogcart pulled by a stout bog pony, and the elves on foot, the troupe followed the twisting paths out of the Vale and into the wooded lands heading towards Thimble Down. Inexplicably, Toldir disappeared into the forest, promising to rejoin them in but a few hours.

The journey would take the better part of a week and Dorro and Forgo had plenty of time to talk. As Amos spent much of his time snoozing in the back, the bookmaster caught up on the legal circus that followed his departure.

As he learned, Dorro owed many friends his deepest gratitude—especially Bedminster Shoe, Darwinna, and his old chum Timmo—while Forgo had much to get off his conscience. He carried an enormous burden of guilt for not helping his friend sooner and apologized profusely, something one would not expect from the famously grumpy lawman. Dorro accepted his words and promised they would never speak of it again.

At last, Toldir appeared out of the treeline and bade the convoy to stop.

“Hold up, little friends!”

“What is it—more goblins?”

The elf laughed. “We needn’t fear seeing orkus anytime soon—their kind has been banished from his world, aside from from a handful who are hiding deep in the mountains by now. Yet I met a fellow I think you should meet. He seems to know you.”

“Out here in the wild? We’re eighty or ninety miles from Thimble Down.”

Something leapt up onto the cart behind them and both Thimble Downers whipped around.

“Wha! ….”

Dorro was at a pure loss for words.

“Now—who’s been makin’ up all this muck that I be dead? I’m as alive as ever, ye numpty-heads!”

Both Forgo and Dorro stared at a tiny figure standing in the back of their dogcart, hands on his hips and looking distinctly irritated.

It was Dalbo Dall.

[]The Twelfth Law

The Hanging Stoat was a beehive of gossip and angst on this night, a Thursday on the 20th of March—the very first full day of Spring.

Thimble Downers left and right were shouting, cussing, and laughing, as they are wont to do, but on this occasion, much of the conversation focused on the Great Wood and the problems therein.

“Where are the purple hellebores? Where are me yellow witchhazels?” sniped Mrs. Fowl. “I should have an ocean of white snowdrops in me garden, but it’s barren and forlorn.”

“Something is afoul in the Great Wood,” fretted Minty Pinter, procuring another honeygrass whiskey from Mr. Mungo as solace. “I knows it in me bones”

“The Meeting Tree is dead,” moaned the gloomy Bog the Blacksmith. “There ain’t no buds on any of ta’ branches. Dead, I tells ya!”

Some folks swore that some of the trees in the Great Wood had departed during the past few weeks, just uprooted and walked away, but they were hooted at and mocked. Still, something was afoot in the woods and wilds surrounding Thimble Down. Springtime was late this year and the woods were still silent.

At a table in one corner, the Mayor and Osgood Thrip were discussing nefarious plans and schemes, while their one-time solicitor Hamment Shugfoot sat alone on a barstool, drinking too many cups of whiskey and looking somewhat wobbly—he was certainly looking less than his usual dapper, effete self.

Elsewhere in the tavern, a few notable others had gathered to discuss the latest developments in their fair village, among them, Mr. Timmo, Mr. Shoe, and the impeccably adorned Darwinna Thrashrack, who was sporting a boffo light-green ensemble to mark this Vernal day of the calendar. Also present was Tiberius Grumbleoaf who was jotting notes in his well-worn leather volume as usual.

“Is it legal, Darwinna?” fretted Bedminster. “We’re taking quite a risk.”

“I’ll defer to Tiberius on the matter, but yes, I think it is quite legitimate.”

“I think it’s a splendid and naughty idea, if anyone cares,” said Timmo with a restrained, conspiratorial smile. “I vote Yes.”

Grumbleoaf snorted in his usual way and pushed a pair of reading specs higher on his nose, indicating he was about to speak. The Halfling shifted his considerable girth in the chair and closed his book.

“Indeed, I think we are on firm legal ground. It’s clearly documented in the Codex Borgonian as the Twelfth Law. Natural-born citizens of a village may call a special election in a time of crisis and, indeed, we are in crisis. We don’t have scientific proof, at least as far as the natural philosophies go, but Winter is lingering too long. Secondly, we are having a crisis of faith in our Mayor—his actions regarding Mr. Winderiver have been underhanded, malicious, and self-serving. I advise that we press our case forward.”

“Hear, hear,” added Timmo, barely audible as he took a small sip of sherry.

“I’m afraid for the library—if we fail, the Mayor and Osgood will do everything in their power to undermine our school and more,” moaned Bedminster. “The younglings will suffer!”

“We must be brave, Mr. Shoe.” Darwinna looked at the scribe imploringly, causing the learned fellow to wilt inwardly. “This is our moment, friends—we must act!”

“It’s up to you, Barrister Thrashrack,” murmured Grumbleoaf. “It all comes down to you, my dear.”

The beautiful lawyer looked unsure of herself, but just for a moment. Then she stood.

“Friends! Friends!”

The gaggle of Halflings in the Hanging Stoat suddenly quieted, wanting to know who was intruding on their grousing and drinking. Upon seeing Darwinna Thrashrack, most of the fellows stopped talking immediately and got wistful looks on their faces, much to the ire of their wives and sweethearts.

“Friends, we must talk. I hope you will listen,” she began. “These are troubled days in Thimble Down and it is time for us to make a change.”

Many heads nodded around the room. “According to law, we have cause—in fact, a natural right—to make changes in our leadership … and that’s why I’m calling for a special election to elect a new Mayor for our village!”

The room was silent, but just for a second or two. The villagers looked at one another in disbelief. Many wondered if they had heard that correctly, or if Darwinna had suddenly lost her beans.

Then one smiled, and then another. A giggle, a chuckle, a clap—and then the whole room exploded in noise, cheering and yelling and banging their mugs on the table.

“Stop! Stop right now!

It was the ferocious bellow of Osgood Thrip, his face a ferocious glower and his bald pate glistening with sweat that flickered lamplight of the tavern.

“This is completely illegal. You can’t just call an election when you feel like it! Our Mayor was duly elected by the citizens of Thimble Down not quite five months ago and his term doesn’t end for another three years. You have outstepped your bounds, Barrister Thrashrack.”

Darwinna looked chastened and embarrassed. She glanced at Grumbleoaf, who nodded his head firmly, urging her to go on.

“Actually, Osgood, I think we’re on solid legal ground here. Let me quote you the Twelfth Law of the Borgonian Code ….,” upon which she regaled him with the intricacies of Halfling legal philosophy.

Thrip look mystified, while the Mayor, seated next to him, just frowned and knitted his famously bushy eyebrows. Finally, Osgood spoke.

“This is nonsense, counselor. You can’t just make this stuff up and hope that the wise folk of Thimble Down will believe you?”

(Naturally, Thrip was pandering to the patrons of the Hanging Stoat, knowing they were dumber than sheep, but as a savvy businessman, this was how one did things.)

There was an awkward cough on the other side of the Hanging Stoat and heads craned to see who would dare challenge Osgood Thrip. It was, surprisingly enough, Hamment Shugfoot, who had discovered he had enough balance to actually stand on his own two feet, despite the steady supply of whiskey.

“I’m afraid, Osgood, thazz Miss Thrashrack is correct. The Twelfth Law of the Borgonian Code is im – im – immutable. With a simple hand vote of a hunnerd citizens, the populace of this hamlet can indeed demand a special ’lection for the mayorship. And there’s nothing you can do about, ol’ Thrippy!”

Leaping to his feet, the Mayor looked like he was about to blow hot coals out his ears.

“How dare you, sir! I should have you removed from the premises!”

Darwinna Thrashrack jumped in again. “I’m sorry, Mayor, but I must remind you of the Fourth Law, which we discussed at our last hearing. And attempts by yourself to circumvent the Borgonian Code could result in you receiving time in gaol. The law is the law.”

“She’zz quite right, Mayor—I have no vested interest in the outcome of this procedure, but I am bound by the laws o’ our realm,” burped Hamment, wobbling onto his stool again.

The Mayor fumed. “So be it!

Hamment continued his oratory, now seated. “Can we have a vote?”

Dozens and dozens of hands shot up around the tavern. Even Mr. Mungo, Farmer Edythe, and their barmaid Freda raised their hands. Bedminster Shoe jumped up and began counting. “Ninety-one, ninety-two, ninety-three …. One hundred!”

The Hanging Stoat erupted into pure pandemonium. Thimble Downers of all ages and sizes were leaping and laughing and dancing like fools. But they stopped at the sound of the Mayor banging his pewter beer mug on the table, just like his magistrate’s gavel.

“Fine, have your damned election! But tell me, which country bumpkin are you going to nominate to challenge me? I dare you to find a worthy candidate. I dare you.

The room descended into silence again. Once more, Hamment Shugfoot wobbled to his feet. “I hereby nim – nerm – nominate [burp!] Darwinna Thrashrack for Mayor!”

Before anyone could react, a slender, reserved villager who rarely spoke up vaulted to his feet. “I second the motion!” he cried.

Tiberius Grumbleoaf hoisted himself to his feet.

“So the motion is carried; thank you, Mr. Timmo. We shall have the special election for the Mayorship of this village in three days’ time, at noon in this very location. I suggest you tell everyone you know. That is all.”

Fortunately, the Hanging Stoat was built very soundly, one of the few freestanding structures in the area. Made of sturdy oak and pine boards and planks with strong iron nails and pegs holding it together, it could withstand anything short of an earthquake.

As the villagers descended into joyous celebration on this night—screaming, dancing, laughing, hugging, and throwing the occasional pint of ale against the wall—the Stoat proved worthy of every last nail, for any other building would have collapsed instantly.

Surely, it was one of the most hopeful evenings in Thimble Down anyone could remember.

[]Tobias Grim

What transpired in the following three days was nothing short of a revolution in Thimble Down.

With the Mayor and Darwinna stumping every day, excitement was palpable, running up and down the village’s twisting lanes and alleys. The Mayor made an outlandish number of promises: new sewers, safer lanes, cleaner water and, really, any far-fetched lie he could think of.

Beyond that, Osgood Thrip was paying off every merchant and tradesman in Thimble Down, buying votes by the dozen. It was a time-honored method that had always worked for the Mayor before.

The barrister, meanwhile, ran on one premise—honesty. She made no wild promises, other than the fact that she’d show up for work every day, do her best, and always act in the villagers’ interests. Folks who listened her speeches didn’t walk away cheering, but often lost in thought.

Some thought Darwinna was too genteel and pleasant to be an effective leader, while others were confused by her lack of absurd lies and schemes. They thought those were the things a Mayor was supposed to say—this honesty business was all too confusing to them.

Election Day came at last and, to the surprise of all, the turnout was enormous. The Mayor knew this was a good sign, as his payoffs had always generated large blocks of votes in the past. Darwinna, meanwhile, put on a pure white outfit with brocaded accents and a simple hat to accentuate her eyes. She did not expect a victory, but want to wear white as a symbol of her good intentions.

The vote-counting lasted well into the night, with both the Mayor and the lawyer pacing the floor of the Hanging Stoat as a committee of representatives worked in the back room.

Finally, at half past eleven, Dowdy Cray emerged and summoned Osgood Thrip and Tiberius Grumbleoaf, each serving as official representatives of the candidates. They shut the door, much to the dismay of the Thimble Downers who were waiting anxiously for the results. At exactly three minutes after midnight, the three Halflings came forth and Dowdy began reading from a scroll he held high.

“Friends and villagers! I have the official results of the election for Mayor. The committee has counted every vote twice and we have signatures here from Mr. Thrip and Mr. Grumbleoaf verifying the results.”

“Oh, get on with it, you dunderhead!” shouted a voice in the crowd, something echoed by others around him. The speaker looked suspiciously like Bog the Blacksmith, but no one owned up to it.

“Fine!” huffed Dowdy who himself would have been happier at home in bed. “The winner of the special election is—by a margin of three to one—Miss Darwinna Thrashrack!”

The Mayor froze where he stood and stared at his closest advisor, Osgood Thrip. But the business magnate just glared back and slowly shook his head. It was over and done with.

Slowly, the noise grew and grew until the windows were nearly blasted out of the tavern’s.

First the first time in twenty years, Thimble Down had a new Mayor—and its very first who knew how to dress fashionably, as well as appropriately for the season and occasion.

 

  • * *

 

The Mayor—the former Mayor, actually—wasn’t done yet. Standing there in the Hanging Stoat, the Halfling felt humiliated. Most folks in the village had forgotten his name or his former profession, in truth, he had been a tailor earlier in his life and held the birth name of Tobias Grim. He left that all behind as he ascended in stature and became the Mayor, the most powerful Halfling for miles around.

At the moment, though, Mr. Grim was completely ignored by those around him. And he blamed it all on one fellow—Tiberius Grumbleoaf.

In retrospect, it was Grumbleoaf who had discovered all the archaic rules and laws from the Codex Borgonian that unraveled the Mayor’s career. For all his evil machinations, Tobias Grim had long ago proved himself a quick, self-serving thinker and instantly realized the most expedient method of revenge.

Spying the big Halfling across the room, sipping a victorious glass of mead with the new Mayor, Tobias edged closer to the table where he had been sitting earlier. Closer. Closer. He sidled down into the seat and opened the big leather book laying there.

As he leafed through page after page, a smile broke over Tobias Grim’s face, a crack in his face that made his mutton-chop sideburns go askew and his bushy eyebrows dance with sadistic joy. His moment of triumph was at hand.

“Friends! Hear me! Friends, listen!”

Everyone in the Hanging Stoat piped down and stared at the ex-Mayor, now standing on a bench with a strange leer on his face. They were perplexed why he hadn’t slunk off in defeat and, moreover, why he held a large volume in his hands. Across the way, Grumbleoaf had a look of pure terror on his face.

“First of all, I must concede the election to the esteemed Darwinna Thrashrack—you have my congratulations, my dear,” said Tobias. Most in the room were surprised the fellow was being magnanimous, but they also hoped he would leave Thimble Down soon and bring his backhanded ways to a community more used to sneaky fellows like him. (The port of Water-Down seemed a likely destination, many felt, a big town already full of con artists, liars, and crooks.)

“I would also like to congratulate the mastermind behind her victory, the formidable Tiberius Grumbleoaf. Can we have a round of applause for our brilliant legal scholar?

There was scattered clapping, though most had no idea why the former Mayor was wasting their time.

“I would like to make it known, however, that Tiberius’ true interest in Mayor Thrashrack goes far beyond the political realm. Luckily, I have chanced upon his famous book, the one he keeps locked at all times when it’s not in his hands. However, he seems to have forgotten tonight and I’ve found one or two fascinating passages within—.”

“No! Put it down!” shouted Grumbleoaf, but it was too late.

“What I find so fascinating,” continued Tobias Grim, “… is that our Mr. Grumbleoaf is a poet and a romantic one at that. Page after page of his leather-clad book is filled with freshly scrawled poems—love poems, apparently, and all dedicated to a certain lady barrister who just became our Mayor. They’re most amusing. Shall I read one?”

Poor Tiberius had by this time turned a bright plum-purple and could not look at Darwinna in the eyes. And Hamment Shugfoot, who had been skulking in the corner, was standing agog, his eyes bulging from his face. He could not believe what Tobias Grim was about to say:

 

Thy face has become my Sun

Like Stars upon my heart,

Your Smile sings like robins,

Piercing as a dart.

 

Brighter than the moon

A voice of sweetest sound,

Your words fill me like wine,

Darwinna, of faire Thimble Down ….

 

“Oh dear, and there’s so much more, folks! They’re immortal—the drivel of a lovesick oaf pining for Miss Thrip, our new Mayor!”

There was a snicker in the tavern. Then a chuckle. A guffaw in the back. Like a wildfire, the room erupted in laughter, a few even pointing at Tiberius and pulling faces at the big, burly barrister and his secret desires for the most beautiful lady in all the Halfling counties.

Grumbleoaf could brook no more—he dashed at the rat named Tobias Grim, pushing folks out of the way, and yanked the massive book his hands. On the verge of tears, Tiberius peered across the sea of giggling faces and noticed one that was not laughing; it was Darwinna, seeming sad and embarrassed. The solicitor shoved his way towards the door and disappeared into the brisk March night.

Tobias Grim was still standing on that bench, smiling most evilly; he may have lost the mayorship, but at least he served up a nice dish of vengeance.

Tobias would have enjoyed it more, however, if someone hadn’t thrown a pewter tankard at him, delivering a direct hit on his bony forehead. As it ended up, the malcontent was knocked clean out and had to be carried from the Hanging Stoat, blood dripping from his face.

No one saw who threw the mug, but some thought the perpetrator looked suspiciously like Hamment Shugfoot.

[]Letter to a Friend

Without any fanfare, a dogcart pulled into Thimble Down on a cool, misty morning. It first pulled up near Fell’s Corner; a Halfling hopped off and waved goodbye.

“Well, thank’ee much, Mr. Dorro and Sheriff Forgo. I hope we don’t have to see each other for a while!”

Amos Pinchbottle smiled weakly as he said it, knowing that they’d all been through enough misadventure for a lifetime.

“I’ll try to be a good lad, I promise.”

“If not, Amos, there’s always a bed for you in the gaol,” smirked Forgo, shaking the reins.

The dogcart rolled onward, heading west towards the river. Another pause and a passenger hopped out not far from the Meeting Tree, sharing a wink and departing into the scrub without a word.

Dalbo Dall returned to the Great Wood and, as he’d informed them many times on their journey from Fog Vale, he had many trees and creatures to visit and conversations to catch up on. (He was especially eager to see the silvery pike, Big Otto, who often had a bawdy limerick or two to share.)

Lastly, the wagon found its way to a burrow overlooking the River Thimble. Dorro didn’t share any words with the Sheriff, but simply reached out and shook the lawman’s hand before scrambling down. The bookmaster walked down his front path as if in a dream, taking in the early Spring garden.

It was unkempt, but there were faint signs of life emerging—a leaf here, a bud there. It would all be alright, Dorro figured, now that the heartwood was back.

The Halfling turned the brass handle on the brightly painted front door and stepped inside.

“Wyll? Wyll, lad! I’m home.”

 

  • * *

 

April 31st, 1722, A.B.

 

My Dearest Saoirse,

 

I hope this letter finds you well . My friend Toldir, of the Woodland elves, kindly said he would bring you this note on his next expedition to the Grey Mountains and I trust you’re holding it at this moment.

I have been home at the Perch for over a month now, but I still am mindful of our time together and how it has changed my life for the better.

I also want you to know that I’m also keeping Truckulus in my thoughts. He and I never found time to get to know one another, but I think we would have found common ground in time. As I suggested once, his actions came from an urge to protect you. (And that, m’lady, is as true a form of love as anything in this world. The boy loved his mother.)

As for me, the past few weeks have been quite a blur. My return to Thimble Down has involved one bit of news after another.

I spent much of the first day in my kitchen of the Perch, in the joyous company of my nephew Wyll Underfoot and his young friend, Cheeryup Tunbridge, who remains as sharp and brilliant as ever—this girl is bound for great things, mark my word.

We laughed merrily, even more so as a parade of visitors made themselves known to me, among them, my close friend Mr. Timmo (the metalsmith I told you of), Bedminster Shoe (our fine teacher and scribe), and even Sheriff Forgo, whom I hadn’t thought to see again so soon. Many tears were shed, but most of them in joy and fellowship.

The inestimable Mrs. Fowl down the lane gifted me several of her mouthwatering beef ‘n’ spring onion pies, as well as apple-crumb cakes for dessert. And as I had promised on the day my dreadful travails began, I brought up a small keg of applejack brandy from my cellar and we had a grand tipple later that evening.

Outside of my own journey in the East, life in the village of Thimble Down has been wildly tumultuous since my departure. The legal proceedings regarding my circumstances were enough to make one’s head spin, but suffice to say, my solicitors Darwinna Thrashrack and Tiberius Grumbleoaf defended me magnificently and forced all charges to be dropped.

There’s more—Darwinna has become our new Mayor, which is staggering news. The old mayor, a certain Tobias Grim –as shifty a bugger as ever walked our lanes—has been banished from the village and is now reputedly in the Port of Water-Down, plying some new nefarious scheme. Good riddance, I say.

The new Mayor has also recast several key laws, among them the right for Criminal defendants to have their causes decided by Jury, not solely the Magistrate. This would have changed my trial significantly, but then again, had I not been exiled, we would have never met.

Life is bittersweet sometimes, yet magical in its way.

Even more surprising was Darwinna’s announcement that she’s to wed. Sometime during my absence, the famously beautiful Barrister formed an attachment with the aforementioned—and well-named—Grumbleoaf and they are to marry on the first day of Summer.

As it turned out, the normally taciturn Tiberius is quite a poet in his spare time and his secret love sonnets to Darwinna verily stole her heart. (There’s talk of publishing his poetry in a volume of its own, and I may invest a few tuppers to underwrite the venture—in fact, I think I shall!)

Perhaps the most interesting chapter of my homecoming involved a late-night meeting in my burrow. ‘Round about midnight on one rainy night, I heard a knock at the door and was pleased to welcome Dalbo Dall, Sheriff Forgo, Timmo, and our tinker, Minty Pinter, for a quaff of wine and quiet talk by the fire. What I heard that night sent me reeling, but makes so much sense now. It has changed my understanding of the World.

As we know, rather obviously, I never killed Dalbo with my errant arrow—instead, he is a being known as the Heartwood. Incredulously, I asked him, “Why, oh why, were you lying on the ground whence struck with my arrow?”

With a giggle, he responded that heartwoods—like trees themselves—require certain periods of dormancy in Winter. He was merely taking a nap, he responded sheepishly. Even after we buried the poor fellow, he remarked that he was quite content and cozy sleeping under the soil.

When he finally awoke, he dug his way out and left for Fog Vale with a small army of trees—though some method of communication I can’t fathom, he already knew there was trouble in the East. That would sound absurd, had you and I not been in the Vale and observed the march of the forest ourselves.

It was even more astounding to hear Dalbo discuss the Wide Green Open, which he often refers to as “she,” as if it were capable of thought. Apparently, says the wanderer, she is just that and binds the natural world together most harmoniously. As a heartwood, his role is to be her emissary between the forest, its creatures, and we Halflings. Sounds preposterous, but from everything I’ve seen, entirely true.

Dalbo Dall wasn’t finished yet, oh no, as he shared with us some sad news and other that considerably brighter. He informed us that, despite his rather extraordinary abilities and role in the Wide Green Open, he had already been a heartwood for several hundred years. While my arrow didn’t kill him, the fact remains that his days are coming to an end—he is dying and will soon leave the Wide Green Open altogether.

We feel grieved over this news, as on the whole he’s a pleasing and amiable fellow I’ve known since my own childhood. Dalbo says he’ll starting turning into a tree himself, probably an elm, just like the Meeting Tree. That thought warmed us all.

Yet there’s more—when one heartwood dies, it is replaced by another. In this case, Dalbo reached out and put his hand on Minty’s diminutive shoulder.

“Minty, me pal,” he began, “Have ye ever had a strange feeling about the two us?”

Minty looked quizzical for a moment, but then nodded.

“Aye Dalbo, ‘tis true. It’s like we’re from the same stock. Folks even say we look alike—and certainly, no one would ever ask small fellers like us to pick apples from the top branch! We’re two short peas in a pod.”

“That’s cos, Minty, we be brothers, sprung from the same nut. I was once a Halfling like you, but other the years, my body has transformed into something more like a tree. And that will happen to ye as well—I don’t know any gentle way to say this, but yer the next heartwood, me lad.”

Minty’s mouth fell open and his eyes protruded, but subsequently he said, “Y’know Dalbo, somehow I always knew we wuz brudders and I had a destiny of some sorts. At least, beyond being a tinker all me days.”

Exclaimed his sibling, “Mark my word, ye shall be a grand Heartwood, Minty, I know it. Just watch out for Big Otto—he’s a naughty prankster! When ye go chat with him in the River Thimble, he’ll splash you or try to knock you in, and hen spend the rest of the day laughing and tellin’ them other fishies how he got ye all wet. Yet he’s always been a good friend and if something is amiss in the river, the pike will be the first to know.”

I added in that I had once caught Big Otto with my reel, to which Dalbo informed me that the fish got caught on purpose. He just wanted a look at me up close, as he’d heard Dalbo mention my name more than once, and actually had no intention of being taken home as my supper. Had I tried that, noted the wanderer, Otto would have slapped me in the face with his tail and leapt back into the river, perhaps taking me home for supper. Imagine that—a fish almost catching a fisherman!

And that, my lady, is all the news from Thimble Down. Everything is as it should be here. The moment Dalbo Dall returned to the village, the trees set their buds and the wide drifts of snowdrops and crocuses popped forth from the ground. It lent even more credence to his wild stories.

As for me, I think I’ve had enough adventures for the time being. My nephew Wyll will be turning thirteen soon and becoming a fine young Halfling, as is his most dearest friend, Cheeryup. They are thick as thieves, those two, and the school is thriving under the tutelage of Mr. Shoe. I have much to be thankful for, as well as fine friends such as Sheriff Forgo, whom I can never repay for coming to my aid.

Nor can I repay you, Saoirse, who risked so much to keep me alive and get me home again. You have my fondest gratitude and I shall never forget your kindness and company.

Now, if you will excuse me, I am roasting an herbed leg of lamb for a supper party, and need to peel the potatoes, bake a crumble pie, and shell a bucket of fresh peas. Oh, and I need to pick some Spring flowers to adorn the table—the first daffodils are up and I am rather mad for them. My life is back as it should be—dull perhaps, but I could get used to that.

Yet who knows, dear lady? I may get the urge to wander again and, if I do, I shall come visit the Grey Mountains for a cup of tea. You remain in my thoughts, as ever.

 

Yours with greatest affection,

 

[Mr. Dorro Fox Winderiver
Bookmaster of Thimble Down]

 

THE END

 

Written from April 1, 2014 to July 4, 2015

 

Learn more about these books at
www.peteprown.com

 


Goblin War

The long-awaited series finale! In this epic saga, Mr. Dorro is accused of a brutal crime that he didn't commit. At last, the bookmaster's enemies unleash their revenge and sentence him to punishment far from quiet lanes of Thimble Down. He's sent to a hellish fate in the east -- and neither Sheriff Forgo, nor his young friends Wyll and Cheeryup, can save him. Along the way he encounters monsters, villains, and even an unusual friend. This is the most terrifying episode yet, as Dorro and his kind edge ever closer to ... GOBLIN WAR.

  • ISBN: 9781370320363
  • Author: Pete Prown
  • Published: 2017-03-08 21:35:29
  • Words: 71835
Goblin War Goblin War