by Kara Taylor (zappo168)
The old man sat on the porch, his feet perched on the railing overlooking the grassy meadow. Of course, at this hour, the meadow couldn’t be seen from where he sat–not with his old eyes, anyway. On a night when the wandering moon was overhead, he could easily pick out the edge of the lake that spilled out of the forest below, pooling into a shallow translucent gem framed by bulrushes and smooth, soft stones. Some nights he could even spot an owl or an occasional feral cat prowling for an easy meal amongst the shallow waters there. But tonight the fickle wandering moon was hiding, and the light of her sister moon, the faithful pale orb by which farmers planted their crops and that captains could count on to guide them home, was alone in the cool night sky. Her light was true, but not as bright as that of the wandering moon, so the old man instead closed his eyes and listened to the gentle lullaby of the bullfrogs and the humming wings of the dragonflies.
Behind him, the warm light from the burrow shone out of the foyer’s round window, smiling happily out of the sloped hillside before drowning into the darkness which surrounded him. The pleasant scents of his dinner still hung in the air—woodnut bread slathered with sweet goat’s butter, baked beans with fried onions and molasses, and a tender suckling pig stuffed with apple dressing. The merry voices of his family lilted out from the warm den within, ringing out songs which had been passed down to them through generations of proud halflings. He lifted his long pipe to his lips and let the sweet tobacco fill his lungs before exhaling a soft, pungent cloud into the still night air.
The burrow door creaked open ever so slightly and the old man’s ears, as worn by the years as they were, could just pick out the sound of little, bare halfling feet stepping quietly over the smooth wood of the porch. The footsteps hesitated slightly, the children not wanting to disturb the old man in case he had drifted off to sleep after dinner. At last the creak of his rocking chair broke the silence, and the little girl crept up gently to the old halfling. “Grand-da,” a soft voice broke the silence of the air around him, “can we have a story?”
He turned his head toward them slightly, rocking back in his little wooden chair, nodding his pipe toward the brother and sister sagely. “Ah, my bobbin and poppet. You’ve come to ask a tale of your old grandfather.” His eyes drifted upward to the sister moon, her milky-blue tint coloring the second puff of smoke drifting from his lips. He curled his mouth into an O and let a perfect ring rise upward toward the pale beams. “It’s a good night for a story.” He beckoned to the cheery round door behind them. “Did you help your Gram clean up the dishes?” The boy and girl nodded eagerly. “Good helpers, then–if you want a story, you surely shall get one. And what story shall I tell?”
The little boy, three years older than his sister, helped her crawl into her grand-da’s lap as he sat himself next to the wooden chair, criss-cross below where the old man had his feet propped on the rail. His soft, dark blonde curls framed his eager face, brown eyes shining in the moon’s pale light as he looked out toward the meadow. “Tell us the story of the wishing stones, when you were a young boy!”
“Yes!” the little girl cried eagerly. Her auburn curls, loose and wavy like her brother’s, were pinned back at the nape of her neck. She felt Grand-da searching for something in the crevasse between the woven straw mat of his chair and the curved arm where she had propped herself. She reached back helpfully, finding his tobacco pouch, and placed it in his warm, wrinkled hands. Grand-da took a pinch of the pungent herb and added it to the small ember burning brightly in its bowl, taking a deep puff to ignite it.
He leaned back dreamily, enveloping the little girl’s tiny, chubby hand in his own. “The wishing stones! Why, yes, I was a wee thing no bigger than you, my bobbins. It could very well have been a hundred years ago, so much time has settled on these old bones, and yet I can remember as if it were yesterday…” He settled back into the chair, rocking slightly, holding the little girl gently in his arms.
“It’s been a great many years since that day I went out on a walk to find rabbits and bring one home to my mam for a nice stew. The placid, silky meadow in which we live now was a different place back then. It was wild with the armies of warring nations and our peaceful village was often troubled by the havoc they wreaked on these lands—desperate men wandered the rural roads hungering for the taste of blood–displaced, starving creatures who stalked the region like deadly shadows. Even a grown halfling could never venture far from his burrow without making sure he had a sling or a dagger in case he came across a wild animal or wandering rogue. I had my dear old hound Nibs (rest his faithful soul!) keeping me company for protection and for help with hunting that day. He was a good dog—a Dwarven-bred companion with a fierce sense of protection and a loyalty that rivaled the old curmudgeons themselves. But just as his Dwarven masters did, he had an obstinate streak that I couldn’t break no matter how many different ways I tried. That day in particular he seemed to be determined to take no mind of me. Seemed he already had a plan and I was going to follow it whether I liked it or not. No sooner had we crossed the small hill that backed up our little burrow than—whoosh! Gone like a warm apricot pie on a table in front of hungry halflings!” He gently poked his poppet’s round little belly as she giggled, the taste of her Gram’s warm apricot pie still lingering in her mouth.
Grand-da continued: “I saw his bare legs pumping across the grassy earth, his golden hindquarters leaping happily as he faded into a small speck in the distance. I cocked my head and closed my eyes, hoping with all my might to find the scent of whatever it was Nibs had caught, but to no avail. My little voice carried across the wide afternoon sky as I begged him to come back to me, but Nibs would have none of that. I waited there for a few moments, my brows scrunched together with worry, racking my brain on what to do. I was too small and weak to defend myself if I happened upon a wild animal or a refugee. But children, how could I let my beloved friend disappear without at least trying to get him back? Of course the wild, open fields were no place for a small boy, but I decided I’d take off just far enough from the burrow for him to hear my voice, for surely he’d return to me thankfully in a moment or two when he realized the danger he had left me in. I took off running after him, knowing he’d have to run a long way to lose me in the vast expanse of that heavy-grassed prairie beyond the meadow here. I walked to where the sun met the sky, and beyond I could just see him up ahead exploring, still nosing around madly as if he had found something wonderful…or something terrifying.” Grand-da paused dramatically here, reaching down for his mug of hot tea. He lifted the heavy cup to his lips and took a long, lingering sip before continuing.
“I was half parched and hardly able to even walk by the time I found where he’d ended up. And do you know where he was, poppet?” The little girl’s eyes widened as she shook her head, her auburn ringlets bouncing. She grasped his wrinkled hand tightly and he gave her a gentle squeeze. “To the only place even worse than being alone out in that big prairie–the ravines!”
His little bobbin shuddered, even though he was a big boy and shouldn’t rightly be spooked by Grand-da’s old stories. Still, the mere thought of those sharp, gaping cracks in the earth caused a knot in his stomach. He had been to the spot only once, when his Da took him out walking in search of a lost goat. The ravines were easy enough to spot from close up, but from far off they looked just like lines in the sod, and too often a stupid animal would find itself having fallen in, injured, and unable to make the steep climb back up. The bones of many animals lay there, the carrion birds circled overhead, and all proper halfling folk considered it a place best to be avoided.
Grand-da nodded. “I was lucky that Nibs hadn’t fallen in. There he stood, circling those cursed crags, darting around the sloped edges setting off little landslides of pebbles and small wisps of dust. His big, soft brown eyes were crazy with bloodlust. I thought perhaps something unusual had fallen into the ravines, but what he had gotten excited about was not there where he stood circling. Dotted in little piles scattered around the terrain was the strangest and most terrifying sight, children.” A hint of puzzlement tinged his words.
“What was it, Grand-da?” his poppet asked, pulling at an auburn curl nervously. The old man’s eyes sparkled, crinkling at their corners.
“Rabbits. Not proper rabbits, running and hiding in their burrows from a little boy with a sling—rabbit bodies, lying alone here and there like little forgotten kingdoms in a wide world that was made of nothing but prairie and sky. The flies feasted in the corners of their eyes and the ravens cawed at the corpses possessively, lazily circling with the luxury of having such a feast to choose from. And the worst thing, children, was that in each little rabbit body there stood, jutting out of their soft dappled fur, long and strange red-flecked arrows. I felt the hair on the back of my neck rise as my eyes searched the horizon for any sign of what may have caused this carnage. But the entire expanse of field was silent as a tomb, and there was no hint as to who—or what—had brought doom upon these little creatures.
“The sheer strangeness of this situation consumed my every thought, and I had almost forgotten about Nibs and why I was standing near these accursed ravines in the first place. I snapped out of my reverie to call him back just in time to realize that he had caught the scent of something again. Whether it was the same thing that caused him to run off back at the burrow, I’ll never know—but Nibs’s keen nose had found something wild, something dangerous, and being a far braver and more foolish creature than your grand-da here, he did what any proper Dwarven-bred dog would do and took chase after it.
“There was a little pile of rocks a few feet behind one of those deep cracks in the ground. I tried to find a place to cross the ravines, keeping my eye on Nibs the whole time to make sure I didn’t lose sight of him in that awful place. He pawed around the rocks madly, wisps of dry prairie earth crumbling under his step, when I could scarcely believe what happened next–Nibs leapt over toward that pile of rocks and disappeared!” The old man paused dramatically. At the pond’s edge, a bullfrog let out a long croak, pitifully complaining about his lack of dinner. But the halflings’ bellies were happy and full.
Grand-da leaned back in his chair again, smiling in the dark envelope of night. “You can bet I didn’t want to go after that old dog. There I stood in that field foul with the stench of death and with no one but the Gods to look after me. I was shaking in my skin. But I couldn’t just turn and leave Nibs behind, wherever it was he had ended up. I had followed him his far, and I felt I had to go after him. So I did.”
His bobbin sat up on his knees, hands flat on his stout little thighs, leaning forward intently. “And what did you find, Grand-da?” he asked eagerly.
“That old pile of rocks that I had seen Nibs nosing around weren’t just rocks after all. They were the most strange and beautiful smooth stones you could imagine, all piled up neatly and framing a small hole as if someone had purposely stacked them there. And the hole that dog had scampered down, as I crawled in behind him, opened up into the strangest little cavern you ever saw, and certainly not something I’d ever have expected to find stashed away in between the crags of the prairie.
“The ground beneath my feet changed from soft prairie earth to more of those soft, smooth stones. The narrow hole which opened to the outside world opened into a wide, dark chamber which was lined with strange carvings and old, weathered runes. It looked to me as if it had once been a place truly magical and breathtaking, but the layers of dust that coated the carvings proved its original inhabitants had left long ago. As if that wasn’t suspicious enough, a truly awful smell hung in the air around me. I knew enough about skinning rabbits with my Da that I could just pick out the scent of blood, but this was stale and foul and mingled with another smell that was about the worst thing I have ever had the misfortune to come across.” The old man wrinkled up his nose in disgust at the memory. “It was the smell of unwashed bodies, of an unkempt folk, but not like a simple hillfolk or pauper who had taken up for lack of better accommodations. I just knew—call it a halfling’s intuition—that it was something much more sinister. The new guests had not been treating this beautiful chamber well, either. Piles of old animal bones stood stacked in one corner, and rats had already found their way to a rotting pile of deer hides in the other corner. The putrid inhabitants had scattered bits of hide and bone all over that floor and left streaks of blood smeared and splattered on the walls from all sides. And as if that weren’t enough! The strangest and most terrifying thing of all was that someone—or something—had placed two fresh torches in the old, dusty sconces of that wall, perhaps only moments before I stood there gawking. And gawk I did–I was mesmerized by the mysterious shapes of those runes. They were nothing like the writing of the humans, with their clumsy, blocky print. They couldn’t be elvish, which I had seen as a child and was sure I would never forget in its flowery beauty. And any Stout halfling worth his salt knows dwarvish as well as halfling, so…what did that mean?”
Once again, the old man paused and lifted the little poppet from her place on his lap, positioning her gently on his other knee. “Well, I’ll tell you, children,” he said at last, matter-of-factly. “Your grand-da I knew right then and there that the stories my grand-da had told me must be true—I had to have found a faery cave here in this hole. Faeries are strange folk, not to be trifled with. Even in this old cave that they surely had left a hundred years before, their tricks and omens would remain. Those proud, fickle creatures surely would have been enraged to see their precious home treated as it was. I kept that in mind as I slipped into the shadows of the nooks of the room, slinking along the sides of the walls in the hopes that I would find old Nibs.
“Just then, somewhere up ahead, I heard a great ruckus. The voices of a great many creatures, jabbering in a language I couldn’t understand and had never heard before—and something had made them very angry. A pained yowl confirmed my worst suspicion. Nibs had followed that awful scent right to the source, and now he had gotten himself into a mess of the most dreadful sort. I stood there in the shadow of that eerie, chilly cave, my heart pounding so loud I was afraid whatever was inside would surely hear it rattling around. The cacophony of voices edged every closer, Nibs’s poor yelp punctuating the guttural voices. I closed my eyes and held my breath, unsure of whether to flee or stand my ground (better to be a clever coward who stays alive than a brave fool who ends up dead, children!) when around the corner leading down into the dank depths of that cave came a group of filthy, foul goblins! They were squat and gray-skinned with thick, round skulls and slimy yellow teeth which dripped hungrily at the sight of my strong, well-fed dog. In their hands they wielded clubs and chains and—lo and behold!—a small bow and arrows with red-flecked tips. At least that mystery was solved.” He chuckled.
“There my Nibs stood, squaring off against them bravely, but hopelessly outnumbered. His lips curled around his sharp teeth, growling menacingly. I knew I had to think fast, and as frightened as I was, I couldn’t just stand there and watch Nibs become those filthy creatures’ dinner. My eyes scanned the ground around me, and for a moment I thought I may have been deep in a strange hallucination brought on by my sheer terror. In the loose dirt beyond that carved entryway were sprinkled small stones which I at first thought were jewels, they sparkled so.
“The stones were small and smooth, flecked with iridescent veins and giving off such a lovely gentle glow that I nearly lost myself in admiring them. They truly shone with a soft, radiant light all their own, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t spotted them right away when I slipped into the shadows of that room. It was almost as if they had decided to let themselves be seen by me, for surely I would not have missed their loveliness in the drab dankness of the cave when I first entered. I quickly grasped a handful of those stones and, though I hated the thought of turning loose one of the gem-like beauties, the situation remained desperate. I picked out the largest one I could find and gripped it tightly. I turned my attention to the hungriest-looking goblin in the group, a putrid creature who had cornered Nibs and stood over him with club raised, and I loosed that pebble in my sling with all my might, right at its nasty skull.”
His poppet squealed, half-terrified at the thought of the old man squaring off against a group of nasty goblins, and half-beaming, guiltily of course, with the thought of her very own grandfather being a hero in such a frightening moment.
The old man smiled and tilted back in his chair. “I didn’t have time to think about all the things that might happen if I made those critters angry enough. I only wanted to get Nibs and me out alive, and it was the only thing I could think to do. That beautiful stone cracked that goblin square in the face, red-black blood squirting out of his forehead in a thick arc. The goblin turned right at me and narrowed his furious yellow eyes. He let out a horrid screeching noise that couldn’t be anything but a battle-cry or threat for revenge. The entire group let their sights off Nibs and began stalking toward me, jabbering in their gravelly native tongue. I was frozen in terror as I gripped the stones tightly. Even if I managed another hit to the same goblin, I could never hope to defeat such a group by myself. I knew I had no hope of being able to outrun the nasty beasts with those treacherous ravines up above me. I had hoped to save poor Nibs from being their next victim, and instead I had doomed us both to that very fate! What a naughty boy I had been, wandering further from home than I knew was wise. If I had only waited for Nibs, I told myself, surely he would have returned back to me before he found any harm. How I wished I were at home in the warm, strong arms of my Da, or sitting comfortably in my safe little burrow eating my Mam’s lovely woodnut bread. What a foolish, foolish boy! ‘Oh, I wish Nibs and I were home!’ I cried. ‘I wish I were safe out of this nasty cave, safely in reach of my Mam and Da!’”
The children held their breath.
“No sooner had those words escaped from my mouth than a wonderous thing began to happen. All around me, the dreary cave began to glow slowly with a warm, comfortable light which grew ever brighter even as the menacing horde advanced. The faces of the goblins charging toward me began to blur–with every step they took toward me, their shapes became slower and more indistinct until their fearsome faces looked like nothing more than a watercolor painting left out in the rain. I held my hand up before me to shield my eyes from the strange brightening around me and saw the shape of my hand was lined with a lustrous golden light of its own! The pebbles I grasped in my hand glittered even more brilliantly than before as the entire scene suddenly erupted in a searing radiance so intense that I had to close my eyes. All around me I could feel the dank stillness of the cave dissipate into something free and familiar, could feel the danger and fear around me dissolve as if it were a heavy fog subdued by the warm, gentle sun. I hesitated to open my eyes, sure that any moment I would be overcome by the roar of the goblins charging toward me. But I heard nothing—nothing but a soft prairie wind and the lonely cry of a dove in the trees above me.”
The old man grasped his poppet tightly, her smooth, young cheeks heavy with a relieved grin. “As I opened my eyes,” he continued, “I saw the lovingly cultivated rows of vegetables of my Mam’s garden, the well-kept pen of our goat, the gently sloping curves of all the burrows of our neighbors, the arms of the willows which dipped over our homes and whose strong roots permeated the dirt walls of our little homes. The wonderful scents of dinner hung heavy in the air all around me—minus the rabbit stew I had hoped for—layered over the sweet smell of the soft, safe meadow. In my hands I still grasped the pebbles I had found in the faery cave. I opened my palm and as I gazed on them, mystified, I found that one of the precious, sparkling stones had faded to a dull, ordinary gray. At that very moment I realized exactly what had happened within the depths of that frightening cave, and knew that I was a lucky young halfling indeed, blessed with stones of wishing by the magic of the faeries themselves. I vowed to never, ever again disobey my Da and wander away from the security of the meadow. And I tucked those stones away safely and saved them should I ever need the magic of the faeries again.”
“And did you?” his bobbin asked. “Perhaps you could have wished for gold, or adventure, or power, or…or…” he paused, his imagination darting wildly from thought to thought.
Grand-da paused, a faraway look settling into his eyes as he leisurely puffed on his pipe. A long tuft of smoke wafted from his lips, his chair creaking slightly as it rocked slowly beneath him. “The life of a simple Stout has been enough for me, children,” he answered at last. “Let the dwarves hunger for their gold, let the humans lust for their power and prestige. What more could a halfling want than to be sitting on his own porch with the sounds of a happy family at his back and the faces of his grandchildren smiling up at him, the cool wind dancing over the ponds and the light of the faithful sister moon overhead? ”
His poppet sighed dreamily, looking out over the misty grasses of the meadow. The undulating reflection of the solitary moon danced in her brother’s eyes, the smells of dinner long gone and only the sweet scent of Grand-da’s tobacco and the earthiness of the fallow meadow remaining. The old man smiled in the dark, the sweet breath of his poppet warm against his soft, wrinkled cheek. His arms wrapped around her tightly in a gentle embrace. Deep within his pocket, the wishing stones sparkled softly in their worn leather pouch, the magic of the faeries still as strong as the day he found them—but he had always had everything he needed.