Trouble had occurred during the night, and by the time a weak sun was well clear of the Western horizon the tale of that trouble had spread like a nose-drip through the town.
On the night of the red moon no storm had come, no lightning split the dark nor thunder spilled frail old men from their beds. All through the night streaks of cloud had raced swiftly across the sky, obscuring and discovering the ominous rust-colored moon which hung above the village. The wind wickered across the fields around ToadChapel, but it was not quite savage. It drove on through the night, as if on some mission of grave importance.
No, the trouble was not quite so ominous as all that. The trouble involved a brace of chickens belonging to an unfortunate turnip farmer named Meddard. Though details were vague and contradictory, it was widely reported that between zero and seven chickens had been abducted in the night. Suspicious persons of every description had been seen, alone, in groups of varying sizes. One man even claimed to have seen a band of green-skinned goblins.
Now, this might seem like a lot of fuss about some chickens, but these birds provided Meddard’s family with eggs to eat. Virtually every villager in ToadChapel either owns birds or trades with a neighbor for eggs, and the theft was as worrying to his friends as it was devastating to poor Meddard. With Winter looming, now was the worst time to face such a loss. Some of the village men were even getting up a search party to try and locate the missing fowl.
Though she was not among the crowd of half-sleeping villagers gathering in the square, GaGa was among the first to know about the theft, having learned of the poaching through one of her countless back channels of gossip. If I knew who told her, it would be in the story.
“Probably that John Mus,” said Dûae, GaGa’s oldest friend. The two sat around the tiny but well-used cookstove in the yellow morning gloom of GaGa’s single first floor room. They were each knitting something, although it was never clear what until these mysterious somethings appeared suddenly on the head, hands, or feet of their confused but grateful recipient. The smell of some long-simmering sauce from the night before lingered in the room.
GaGa said nothing, and both dwarf women kept their wooden needles moving in neat, regular patterns. The blunt tips traced a kind of rune in the air. The needles seemed more like an extension of their hands than objects only temporarily in their grasp.
“Probably that John Mus. He’s a wild one. My sister says he stole her husband’s wedding ring, the wine out of the Chapel cellar, and the gaoler’s pretty wife. A genuine rogue.”
Dûae spoke as if her own experience perfectly captured the essence of how things work. Her limited social circle and narrow range of experience were, she thought, a perfect microcosm of the wide world. But GaGa understood, perhaps more than she let on.
The orphans were not yet awake, or pretending as much. Just a few minutes earlier GaGa had tossed a handful of sausages onto an iron skillet, and now the small but tidy kitchen was beginning to fill with a mouthwatering smell. Listening as the fat sizzled, GaGa knew the children would soon come racing down from the maze of keepsakes, curiosities, and creations they shared above. Though she almost encouraged the pair in their wandering, wondering ways, she was a practical woman, and she wanted that room clean. And she wanted those nails hammered in. If it took sausages to get them rousted from bed in time to complete their chores, she was ready to cast that lure.
All of a sudden there came a knock at the door. Without waiting for an invitation, in walked a stout young dwarf, swaggering and spruce in a rustic way. He bore a beautiful crossbow worked all over with silver filigree. The important-seeming dwarf looked around the poorly-lit room haughtily. ‘Those for me?” he asked. As he was reaching for one of the sausages, GaGa noticed the curious faces of Mills and Gramm peeking down from atop the darkened stair. She turned back to watch this obnoxious newcomer snap off a bite of the breakfast she was preparing.
“We’re investigating some chickens, ma’am. Case of theft, plain and simple.”
“If you already know the chickens pulled the heist, why did you come to us?” asked Dûae.
“That’s not what I meant. It seems three chickens have gone missing from farmer Meddard’s coop overnight. Now don’t tell me you think they just got up and walked off!”
“I shall not,” said GaGa. “And I’m quite certain it was a pair of chickens, not three. But what do you really want and why have you barged into my house like a brigand? Return that sausage to the skillet, it’s not finished browning on the outside.”
“Yes ma’am, I’m, uh, very sorry. That’s beside the point. Let me introduce myself,” said the officious dwarf, struggling to recover his dignity. “I am called Herling, son of Tù. I am elected to lead a search party for these missing birds. I notice you’ve a fine skillet full of fresh sausages! Chicken sausages!”
GaGa gave the intruder a look that would have withered a more perceptive man. “Those are pork sausages, as you surely know,” she said. “The grease is still on your fingers! Now tell me why you are here and stop acting like an imbecile.”
Herling narrowed his eyes and shot suspicious glances back and forth between GaGa and Dûae as he prepared to speak. “We’re just following up on an anonymous tip about a certain dirt-caked human boy who was spotted in Med’s barnyard yesterday attempting to catch the same chickens whose whereabouts are currently unknown, presumed eaten. Seems he figured out a way to make off with three of the poor birds in one night! Now, do you have any information for us? Where’s that young jackanapes? He’ll pay for it!”
As GaGa and this Herling continued to spar like this with one another, Dûae herself spotted Mills and Gramm peering down from above. Both children seemed genuinely terrified. Dûae waved the children back from the stair without attracting the attention of the ever more agitated interloper, using her knitting needles to signal her meaning. Better to keep this sort of thing in the dark for a while, she thought to herself. You can always remember more later.
“Well see that you do keep an eye out, you old she-wolf! You too,” Herling practically roared, again addressing both women. “One from each of you. You’re known to harbor two strange humans, a boy and a girl child, and this village wants answers from you! I know there’s something you’re not telling us! And we want to talk to that Gramm the minute he returns. I don’t know why you sent him to fetch water from the spring, the village well is much closer and just as good. You’re a soft-headed woman. Ha! Now I’m off to track down some villagers to try and find those missing chickens. They’re mostly likely already eaten, in a pot pie or stew, perhaps, but something’s got to be done. I’ll be at the forge coordinating the search. Send Gramm to me immediately when he gets back from the spring!”
Herling spun around on his heel and stomped out of the house, grabbing his half-eaten sausage back out of the skillet without so much as a thank you or a goodbye.
The stair leading to the second story of the tiny house was empty now. “I think I’d better have a talk with the young ones,” said GaGa as she took the skillet off the stove. Dûae nodded in agreement and set her careful knitting neatly on her chair, then followed Herling out to see that he wasn’t still lurking at the door.
Herling’s fine bow, like few other items in ToadChapel, is made with precious silver. I have used true metallic paints on this item to differentiate it from objects made of base metals.
Other objects in ToadChapel emit, absorb, or otherwise interact with magic and other forces.
The story continues here.