VII: A Meeting by Moonlight

“Don’t you think we’d better leave a bit early so we’re sure we don’t miss mister Mus? I don’t want to fail him,” said Gramm to his sister.

“Don’t worry, we have plenty of time. The festival moon won’t set for another hour or so, and Jon Mus told us to stay out of sight till then,” replied Mills. “He slipped me some apples and a bit of cheese as we parted. Let’s have a bite to eat and rest here in the barn before the meeting.”

With a sigh Gramm thumped down upon a wooden box. He dangled his feet anxiously and took an apple from Mills. “Imagine,” he said (not for the first time), looking with wide eyes into his sister’s incredulous face, “Jon Mus! What are the chances we’d meet him in the woods? And that he’d know all about our problems, and have a plan to help us in our troubles?”

“Hmm. Let’s focus upon what we do know, Gramm, and think about what we can do for ourselves. I still don’t trust that Jon Mus. Even if this cheese is pretty tasty. Here, have some.

Now, we need to get Herling off our tail. The easiest way to do that is to prove we didn’t steal the chickens. Even he can’t keep his louts chasing us if everybody knows we didn’t do it.”

“Right,” said Gramm, spreading the soft rind cheese onto a slice of crisp green apple. “I didn’t steal any chickens!”

“Well. Your reputation isn’t helping us,” replied Mills. Her brother wrinkled his nose and began to sputter, so she added “I suppose my own isn’t so spotless in ToadChapel, either. What did we ever do to these dull, grumpy people?

Now, once we’ve cleared our names, we need to warn people about this goblin business. Something unusual is going on, and it looks bad. Once it’s safe to return home, we can tell mother. She’ll know what to do.”

“I say we investigate those nasty goblins ourselves and find out what they’re up to. We found them, we get to foil their plot!” said Gramm in a rush. “If we hadn’t gone into the woods to catch trout nobody’d know what they’re up to, even mister Mus. Imagine, mister Mus needing our help. He probably needs us to find out more, too!”

Mills doled our more of the apples and cheese and tightened Gram’s collar against the creeping chill. There was no harm in Gramm’s fantasy, even if she could never allow herself to run such risks with her brother’s safety. The two munched the rest of their food in silence, occupied with thoughts of the mystery. Gramm frequently checked the moon through a crack in the wall, sighing each time at its tardiness. At last he tugged at his sister’s sleeve.

“It’s setting. It’s time to go.”

“Ok,” said Mills. “But be quiet now, we don’t know who’s about tonight.”

The children cracked the heavy barn door and scanned the road. The only sounds were the occasional hoots of an owl and the rustling of the mice behind them in the barn. They crept out into the yard and dashed across to the low stone wall beside the road. The cemetery opposite appeared far more threatening in the pale moonlight than it had in the light of day. Long shadows cast by the low moon stretched out like fingers reaching for them.

Mills squeezed Gramm’s hand and the children scurried across the road to the cemetery gate.

“That’s odd,” said Gramm. “The gate’s a bit open.”

“It’s just Jon Mus here ahead of us.” said Mills. Her heart was pounding in her chest, but she didn’t want Gramm to know.

The children crept stealthily through the small cemetery, looking for the mysterious man. Though Mills was as wary as Gramm was eager, she needed to know how things stood so she could form a plan for her brother and her.

Approaching a far and inconspicuous corner of the cemetery, a spot where tiny mausolea huddled together like some silent congregation, the two stopped short and clutched each other in surprise. There were definitely hushed voices ahead. The two crouched lower and strained to listen, but could not make out any of the words exchanged. One voice was rich and smooth, while the other was high and harsh. The second voice grated on their ears and seemed unsuited to speaking softly.

“Gramm, we’ll see if we can get a look at whose voices those are. Probably Jon Mus has just brought someone else with him tonight, but let’s go quiet as a pair of mice anyway.”

“Maybe we should turn back. Jon Mus knows where to find us,” said Gramm.

“Shh. We can always run, and we can always hide. Right now, though, let’s see what we can learn,” replied Mills. “We’ve come this far and we don’t want to let mister Mus down.”

Holding her brother’s hand, Mills led the children forward, hugging the walls of the gloomy tombs and placing each footstep with care.

As the two frightened but courageous children came nearly close enough to hear what was said, they peered around the wall of a vault and actually saw the speakers. The festival moon had nearly set and the seasonal moon cast only a pale light, but the identity of one of the plotters was clear. The dwarf carried a crossbow and wore a low hood. It was Herling.

The second speaker gave the children even more cause for alarm. He was stooped with age and leaned upon a tall staff. Hanging from the staff the children saw skulls, including the skulls of humans or similar folk. The figure had a long nose on his face, beady eyes, and a chin that jutted out angrily. He wore a large shabby fur and bore all sorts of grotesque trinkets. Now the children understood the harshness of the cruel high pitched voice. Though it was too dark to see, they knew that the figure’s skin was green.

VI: The Hooded Figure

At the same time that Dûae was heading back to Ga-Ga’s, a shadowy figure (even in the daylight) sneaked off in the opposite direction. Though the streets were now deserted, the man was used to remaining unseen. He moved quickly, quietly, and confidently, using alleys and keeping close to the walls of the village buildings. He was inconspicuous, yet without seeming furtive. He wore soft dark clothing that seemed now black, now grey, now darkest blue, now many other shades. A low hood kept his face from view.

The man moved away from the center of town toward where the Meander entered ToadChapel to the East. When he came to the bridge, he turned off the road and walked a short way into the woods. He blended so naturally into his surroundings that soon he was lost to view.

Thus it was that Mills and Gramm did not see the tall dark figure until he stepped from behind a tree and stood before them on the path down which they were scampering.

Mills, who was pulling her brother by the hand, bumped headfirst into the man, while her brother collided with her from behind. As both children fell to the ground, the man held his empty hands out and offered to lift them to their feet. Mills drew herself up wiping dirt and leaves from her dress, while Gramm scampered to his feet making his hands into small tight fists.

Keeping his hands in view, the man said, “Good morning. It’s lucky we’ve met each other on the path here. I think I may be able to help you. My name is John Mus.”

At the sound of the fabled name, Mills wrinkled her nose and glowered at the rogue. Gramm’s jaw dropped and a look of wonder spread across his face.

“I know you! You’re wicked and you steal and you’ve got a knife in every pocket! You’re a rogue and a gambler and a flirt! I heard you killed a man!” said Mills breathlessly.

Gramm blurted out at the same time, “John Mus! It can’t be true! You saved a girl from an ugly troll, you cheated those bad guys who were lying about having magic beads for sale… why, every town knows your name! I heard you killed a man!”

John Mus knelt on one knee and smiled warmly. “It sounds I’m a busy man!” he replied. “You’re right to watch out for rogues like this one, young lady, even if his misdeeds are a bit implausible. Be thankful you have such a brave defender in this fellow.” At this Gramm fairly beamed with pride and let his balled hands fall open to his sides.

“You don’t have to trust me,” said John. “But I’ll give you some advice if you’ll take it. A dwarf named Herling has roused a few of the idle men in town to form a kind of mob. It’s unclear exactly what sort of trouble he intends to get up to, but he isn’t wasting any time getting started. They’re searching for you two, and while not everyone supports the idea of new rules and regulations, people are scared and they might give Herling what he wants for now. If I were you, I’d keep well out of sight until things settle down a bit.”

“But where can we hide? We don’t want to get GaGa in trouble with Herling and his gang, nor Dûae either, and they’re only friends in town,” said Gramm.

“It’s true you haven’t got a lot of friends in ToadChapel,” replied John. “Though you have more than you might suppose, and perhaps in time you might count me as one of them, Mills. If I were you I’d hide out in the stone barn off the road as you’re coming back into town. The farm there’s been empty for years and no one uses it now. If you need me, I’ll meet you in the graveyard across the road from the farm when the festival moon sets tonight. Until then I’ll see what I can find out about Herling’s plan. I’m sure he has more in mind than capturing young children, no matter how many chickens have been taken.”

“Hey, we didn’t steal those chickens!” cried Gramm.

Interrupting him, Mills took John Mus by the arm and whispered, “Wait. We saw a goblin in the woods. He wore an iron cap and stood guard over a dam that wasn’t there yesterday. The stream’s all blocked up, though you wouldn’t know it in town because it’s such a little stream. We were trying to catch trout- er, find the missing chickens- and we saw him. That’s why you found us running down the path in such a hurry.”

“Hmm,” said John, standing upright again. “I’ll have to have a look at that dam. Perhaps I’ll have news to tell when I see you tonight.”

“We’ll be there,” said both children at once.

“I hope so,” replied John. “Do be careful, and do be quiet, but keep your spirits up and don’t fear these bumbling brutes of Herling’s. In a pinch, trust your own wits. I’ll be back at moonset. Until then, look after each other.”

“You be careful too, sir,” said Mills quietly. “Our enemies seem to have us surrounded.”

Gramm wriggled himself a little taller and peered into John’s eyes. “You can rely on me, mister Mus. She’s has a reason to be scared, but I’ll look after her.”

“Like I said, young man, your sister is lucky to have you.”

~

Attend the meeting at the setting of the moon.

Chapter V: A New Sheriff in Town

One person who certainly had not forgotten about Herling was Dûae. When she left GaGa’s house she walked to the center of town, where she found the schemer addressing a large (by ToadChapel standards) and growing crowd of listeners.

Herling stood at the foot of an old statue dedicated to some god or saint or hero forgotten by everyone in the village. The dwarf looked very important as he warmed to his subject, fingering his silver bow and pointing at people to make them understand.

“I, for one, won’t wait for trouble to find me!” he cried, raising his fist above his head so it was about level with the face of a brawny, mean-looking man standing beside him. “Harry’s found goblin footprints in his prize pumpkin patch. Pumpkins violated! There’s goblin graffiti on the wall of a mausoleum in our town’s burial ground. Are the shades of ToadChapel to be thus polluted? Why, Fernald the woodcutter was chased from his cutting by a swarm of chattering goblins, he says! Goblins in our very midst!

“Before these younglings, these Mills and Gramm, came to ToadChapel we enjoyed peace and quiet. Now the moon goes all red like blood spilt in the night, and strange goings on have followed ever since. Strange and worse.

“Of course I’m not saying children are bad, or even that these children are in league with goblins. But there’s some mystery that has brought a foul threat to our door, and I’ll wager those two know more than they’re letting on. Could be the lovely GaGa knows, too, but I suspect she’s merely the victim of her own kind and generous heart.

“If the younglings are innocent, they have nothing to fear. But I’d rather we kept this town free from danger than wait to uncover their guilt. What might be the cost of that to all you good people of ToadChapel?”

At this a murmur of support spread through the nervous crowd. Men brandished sticks, farm tools, and even a few hunting bows. The hidden misgivings of the villagers focused their fears on Gramm and Mills.

Herling gestured to some rough-looking characters, including the big man in the front of the crowd, as he continued, “Fear not, friends, I’ve got things under control. With the help of these fine bold men here, we’ll keep the woodland tracks free from marauding goblins. We’ll keep your poultry from the clutches of that pair of urchins. We’ll keep the village streets safe at night, no matter the danger to us.

“If anyone spots Gramm or Mills, they are to be apprehended and brought to me for questioning. They are extremely clever, so take care they don’t slip through your fingers like the breeze. It is important that GaGa knows nothing of this plan.

“Further, we all see the need for increased vigilance in these times of peril, so I’ve instituted a curfew of sundown until further notice. Anyone caught out of doors at night will face a fine. Travelers venturing outside the village must inform me or my assistant, Bultry,” said Herling as he pointed to the burly man beside him. “For your safety.”

By this point Dûae had become truly frightened. With luck the children were safely out of sight, but she couldn’t do anything about that now. She decided she’d better get back to GaGa’s and inform her friend how things stood. As she slipped away from the back of the crowd, she heard Bultry thanking ‘sheriff Herling’ and calling other men together to coordinate a system of patrols, checkpoints, and other ‘security measures’. She scarcely believed the other villagers would accept such nonsense, and wondered how Herling had got himself appointed head honcho. Now that he commanded a gang of thugs, she doubted it much mattered anymore.

~

With goblins on one side and goons on the other, the adventure of Mills & Gramm continue here.

Chapter IV: Trouble Upstream

“I don’t know why we have to look for these stupid chickens. You didn’t steal them. I certainly didn’t. You always drag me into your messes! Come on. Let’s go to the stream and I’ll show you how to catch a trout,” said Mills to her brother.

Mills often visited the streams around ToadChapel, where she enjoyed being alone, catching trout, skipping stones off the surface of the water, and carving fantastical symbols into the trees with a rock. She had discovered one rivulet, too small to attract other anglers, where tiny deep blue fingerlings could be carefully pulled from beneath the stones under which they hid. She chased them from stone to stone until she could catch the fish in her clever hands. From time to time her fingertips got a nip from a crayfish, instead!

“Come on,” she repeated. “You’re always losing track of things and daydreaming. We’ve got to look for these stupid chickens. If we turn off the main stream here and head up this way there’s an old statue in the woods. It looks a little like the one in the sophotasters’ Garden. I’m not sure anyone even knows it’s there.”

The children picked their way through the trackless forest, drawing farther from the course of the Meander, ToadChapel’s main waterway. Here the stream was narrow enough to jump in places.

“This isn’t even a real stream,” cried Gramm. “I can walk across it.”

Though his sister was miffed at the jest, she had to admit, her stream wasn’t very impressive. In fact, as the two slowly travelled farther upstream, there was hardly any water in the stream at all.

“Something isn’t right. I was fishing here just yesterday, and the water was up to my knees in these pools. You can see the streambed’s all muddy, but something’s stopped up the flow. Let’s keep going.”

Then she spotted him about thirty yards away: right next to the old statue, an ugly little goblin shuffling from one foot to the other. Goblins seldom ventured so close to ToadChapel, and when they did they came for mischief, not war. This one was armed with a long spear and wore a wooden shield and an iron cap. More, rocks had been piled into a makeshift dam, blocking the flow of the stream and creating a kind of bog behind it. The bored-looking goblin stood guard over the dam.

Mills touched her finger to her lips to silence her brother and drew him down beside her behind a big mossy log. She pointed ahead at the goblin.

“I’ll throw a stone at his ugly green nose, and we can charge him with sticks!” Said Gramm excitedly.

“Shhh!” Mills hissed through her teeth. “He’ll hear us. Don’t be stupid. He’s got a spear and an iron cap. He’s not lost, he’s guarding that dam, and from the look of him there’s sure to be more around. Something very strange is going on here. We’ve got to get back to town quick.”

The children stole stealthily away from the dam, keeping behind trees, bushes, and rocks where they could. Mills looked back frequently and kept her brother’s hand in hers. When they reached the course of the Meander and heard the distant sounds of normal village life, they took off at a run, forgetting all about Herling and the problems they faced in ToadChapel.

~

Head here to find out what’s been going on back in ToadChapel.

Chapter III: A Quest… of Sorts

No sooner had this Tù-bïdi Herling hustled away from GaGa’s (he didn’t want to be seen in this part of town) but two frightened human heads appeared at the top of the stairs.

“Who’s that?” said Amelia.

“I didn’t steal those chickens, I just had fun chasing em,” said Graham.

“Come down here, both of you.” GaGa said. Her tone was serious. The children crept down the stairs as if a creaking step might still somehow alert the swaggering dwarf so recently and rudely met. The kids nervously followed GaGa as she walked outside to join Duae. “Sister*, would you go and see what this fuss about a party is all about?”

Dûae quickly agreed, knowingly winking at GaGa as she turned.

“I didn’t steal those chickens. Me and Mills were about to begin our chores, when we sort of got off track,” said Graham sheepishly. “We didn’t do em.”

“Yes I can see that,” replied GaGa with something like a smirk flashing across her face. “But I also know you didn’t steal anybody’s animals. You’re wicked, but you’re not bad. There’s something I need you to do.”

Mills enjoyed a smirk of her own as she told GaGa, “I know what kind of party that dwarf’s throwing. It’s a search party!”

GaGa looked around suspiciously as she continued, “Go and find those chickens yourself. Somebody’s been up to no good, and the sooner we find them the better we can keep this town from blaming you for everything. No doubt Herling’s told the search party to look for little boys, not lost poultry!”

“He’s probably got every man in town out after us. They already hate us,” said Mills, her voice leaden with concern.

“Sadly, that may be true,” sighed GaGa. “They’re angry because they’re disappointed in something, and they’re mean because you haven’t got any friends yet. But it’s more than that. They’re also jealous, because there’s a bit of a mystery surrounding you, and no one’s really lost interest. Most of our neighbors have a story of how you got here, and they’ve made up their minds about you on account of that story.

“But you need to go find those chickens before those fools stumble onto them and find a way to fault you. You’re both twice as smart as any of those morons, but that only makes four. I don’t have to tell you to avoid the townsfolk for now, right?”

“Mom, we’re not idiots! You always treat us like babies!” cried both kids.

GaGa smiled as she countered, “Ah, so it’s ‘Mom’ now, huh?”

* They were not sisters, officially.

~

You might notice (if you can overcome the bad photography!) that in the picture where GaGa counsels and cautions Mills & Gramm she is holding a crossbow. That’s mostly because it’s really hard to find high quality minis that aren’t holding weapons. Red Box & Hasslefree, which I’ve used exclusively to this point, are also a small 28mm scale, which further limits options. And while dynamism can be great, it doesn’t make the lack of static poses any less problematic for me. Printed resin has become so good that this issue is hopefully, and most likely, on the way out.

The other reason she’s got a bow is, of course, because she could become part of an adventure at any time!

~

Now, after those chickens!

Chapter II: Robbers and Rogues

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 were suddenly on the head, hands, or feet of some 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 own 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 would 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.

Chapter I: Blood Moon

Our story begins with ribbons of grey cloud gliding quickly across an Autumn evening above a small village named ToadChapel.

It was the kind of village that bigger towns would call names. So they called it ToadChapel. The unimaginative locals mostly didn’t call it anything at all, since few of them had ever travelled more than a day or so from their homes. Where else would they talk about?

ToadChapel was home to all sorts of people. Dwarves and humans lived there, mostly, but elves, halflings, and gnomes lived or traveled among them. Still stranger beings were also not unknown in the village. This unusual mix of folk usually lived together peacefully, since the community had just been, well, slowly cobbled together over time out of many people from many places. No one had ever really settled ToadChapel, it had merely drifted together many generations ago. All its peoples had brought their own traditions, and many of them still survived in some form or another. Since pretty much everyone’s ancestors came to ToadChapel from somewhere else, no one had ever thought to say it belonged to him.

Now two new strangers lived in ToadChapel. You could tell from the way they acted they were sister and brother. People in the village put their ages at about 10 and 6, but no one knew for sure.

One very wet, cold morning after a memorable Spring storm a goatherd on his way to the hillside to tend his goats found the two young human persons peacefully sleeping under an oak tree. Their clothes were badly torn, their cheeks were thin, their hair was caked thick with mud. They bore scratches on their faces and arms.

When the goatherd addressed them, both children spoke perfectly well, the boy perhaps even more than was usual, but they could provide no details about their identity, home, or former life.

The confused but kindly goatherd led the strange pair to the village center, where the wisest men on hand seized upon the Problem of the Two Children with much thought and more discussion.

While he waited for these venerable greybeards to decide what should be done, the goatherd fed the two children with the meal his wife had packed for him that morning. The hungry pair found wrapped carefully in a clean cloth tucked inside the goatherd’s beaten leather pouch a chewy hunk of bread with a beautiful bronze crust, a ball of fresh cheese from his flock, and flower-scented honeycomb, harvested months before, that had captured the essence of a long hot Summer.

A good while after the last dribbles of honey had been wiped from Gramm’s chin, the sages continued to debate what they ought to do with the young newcomers. Eventually the two were handed over to the care of a sensible and strong-willed dwarf woman named GaGa, who seemed like the best choice. The children said goodbye to the goatherd, feeling very alone in this new place.

For many cycles of the seasonal moon, GaGa tried tirelessly to discover who the children were and how they had come to ToadChapel. However, she had come no closer to an answer after more than half a year with the children living under her roof. But she began to love them anyway, and took great care for them, and resolved to raise them in the way she imagined human children ought to be raised. She began by pretending the two were a terrific burden to her.

Neither Mills nor Gramm displayed any knowledge of their lives before coming to ToadChapel, not even their names. Which is how they got those names, by picking new ones. The girl, who bore hair so pale it shone like polished elf metal, decided to be known to the world as Mills. Young Gramm chose the name of a proud warrior, about whom he knew next to nothing.

Nobody knew for sure if the children were a good thing or a bad thing for ToadChapel, so everyone kept an eye out. People around ToadChapel tend to be nosey. You would be too if you lived in a small, sleepy village in the middle of nowhere. So the rumormongers, talkative aunts, and topers down at the inn called them orphans of the storm, and mostly expected them to turn out bad.

Which brings us back to a fast deepening dark on an evening not too different from the one that delivered Mills and Gramm in its cold and rainy arms. On that former night a great moil of clouds had come suddenly flashing across the sky and rattling the rooftops of ToadChapel with deafening claps of thunder.

Above the children now hung an enormously full moon, high in the sky and brilliant as it shone out between the clouds in the cold air. In these final days of faltering warmth GaGa and the two young ones she cared for were fixing their gently battered house as best they could before the cold of Winter put those efforts to the test.

Another brief day had passed, and Gramm hadn’t started the work he was supposed to have finished. Loose steps needed nailing, raw boards needed painting, and the roof needed to be patched. Gramm had spent his afternoon attempting to catch a chicken from a neighbor’s barnyard. What he intended to do with it is anyone’s guess.

GaGa had directed Mills to clean and organize the room she shares with her little brother. The room was about as messy as you would expect two such young and curious persons to leave it. Though she had begun the day with good intentions of tackling the job, Mills sprinted off through the woods instead and spent the afternoon in the icy waters of a rivulet catching tiny colorful trout in her hands.

As the sun went down over a village that did not yet feel like home, the moon above them began to glow with a heavy red light, more like blood than fire.

~

As you can see in the image with which ToadChapel’s record begins, Evening was achieved by waving my hands in front of the light while I shot the picture on my cell phone. It seemed appropriate to leave the finger in.

ToadChapel is entirely handmade. I am a novice at most of the elements of this project.

Much of what you see is incomplete. The two story house behind Mills & Gramm, which is in fact GaGa’s, is not a finished piece of scenery.

These imperfections and flaws are essential elements of ToadChapel. This project is an effort to give shape to the various intersections of my imagination.

Though the story will advance, I’ll continue to edit, augment, and extend earlier Chapters. Nothing in ToadChapel is ever perfect or fully defined.

I invite you to explore and engage the ideas, experiences, and creations from which ToadChapel springs.

The gaps between the slabs of earth are visible. Here is one way to build a road to ToadChapel. I hope it leads you there.

~

If you would like to follow the trail of Mills, Gramm, and GaGa as they attempt to expose the scheming Herling, the story continues this way.