More Story Fragments – Wrapping Up an Adventure

I’ve been plodding through this Foggy Swamp for weeks, and I finally have almost brought the adventure to a close.  It’s come almost to a close as far as a first draft goes.  I’m sure upon re-reading it, and revising it, I will trim a bit here, and add a bit there.  What I wanted most of was some climactic scene were Artur and the Rhino Men do what is needed to get the cure for the plague afflicting the Rhinos.

In my previous post, Artur and the Rhinos got a mission to retrieve the mate of the Witch’s snake vine, which belongs to the Hunter.  I decided this should not be a long and arduous task.  I also wanted this to somehow impact the relationship between the two rival tribes of frog people.  I wept for the hunter near the end as I wrote it, and you’ll see why.  It’s a bit long, so get a cup of tea or coffee if you want to read it:

The hunter spent the night asleep atop a flat mossy rock not far from the stranger’s camp, his snake vine curled about his legs, or about his neck or arm, as it suited the creature. He awoke to the chirp of birds and the buzz of morning insects, and set about getting ready for his day.

The stitches on his foot were holding up well, but he needed a spear. Checking the flotsam about him, he found thick, long branch only slightly rotted, and began whittling it with his knife. The snake vine coiled about his neck, and it rubbed its head affectionately on his cheek and ear while he work. The soft leaves tickled.

It wasn’t long before the man hacked a fine point and removed all the rough edges on the shaft. It wasn’t the best spear he could make, but it would do. He kissed his vine on the head and placed it gently back in his carrying basket. Then he gathered his gear and set out in search of the strangers. If the poison didn’t kill them, certainly he’d be able to finish them all off with ease.

His mental map was flawless, and he returned to the little island and found the lamp still hanging there, no longer lit. Maybe he struck every one of them, and needed only collect the dead meat? He cautiously explored a great circle around the camp, looking for bottle flies and other insects that go after the dead. There were moths and mosquitoes, but nothing else. And no bodies. He then found a heavy set of tracks, two obviously of the great creatures, and the faint prints of a frog, and staggering, dragging footprints of the man.

The hunter limbered up, stretching his legs and arms, ready for a fight, and in a slight crouch pursued the tracks almost silently, needing no magical fog to conceal his footfalls. He reached a small stream, and after a bit of searching, found their tracks on the other side, this time just the big things. Maybe the Frog parted ways with the big things. Maybe the man died, and they carried him.

He cautiously stalked forward, following the tracks, when suddenly something felt off. His skin felt cool, as though the smothering blanket of the fog had suddenly lifted. He looked up, and there some thirty yards ahead of him were his prey, all four! How did the fog clear away? There was an elm tree between himself and the prey, so it didn’t seem like they saw him.

He crouched down, spear ready, and watched the frog skip quickly along the mire. The human carefully but quickly chose the drier parts and hopped from place to place. The rhinos proceeded forward with great sucking sounds of their great feet sinking in the mud and drawing out again. The human turned to the rhinos, and said “Can you make any more noise?!”

Oak gave a dismissive wave. “If you want stealth, hire some sneaky little dwarfs or some cat people!”

The hunter knew banter to be banter, but didn’t understand the words. The four prey moved along, looking to the left and the right. The fog seemed to close in behind them as they moved forward. Once the fog began to close about the hunter, he stood up, readied his spear, and began to follow their fresh prints.

* * *

Acorn felt dismayed. If anything, Artur’s magic globe would make it harder to find this hunter because it gave their position away. As he squished and splooshed through mud and water, he got to thinking maybe they were spotted already.

“Artur! If this hunter could shoot you in the dead of night in this heavy fog, surely he can find us in the daytime with that globe of yours.”

Artur balanced atop a stone that rocked back and forth in a stream. “You think we should wait for him?”

“Yes! Yes! Wait, shout, cry, fart, carry on, and dodge the next spear.”

At this Slip protested. “No, no! The green frogs will find us!”

As Acorn prepared his bagpipes, he said, “Well so be it. I’m tired of sneaking through this fog, getting stuck in the mud. Bring on the green frogs. Bring on the hunter.” He patted his great spear that stood end in the mud. “I’m ready.” He patted the ax on his belt. “I’m ready.” He patted the sword on the other side of his belt. “I’ m ready.” And lastly he drew his finger to the tip of his horn, “I’m ready!”

His father nodded, and looked to Artur.

Artur didn’t like the situation. Wide in the open, no cover, and fog for their enemies to hide in. It was tactically the worst place for them to be, which means it might be the only way to get the hunter to come out. “Fine. Let’s stand back to back, so we can see him when he comes.” Artur squish and splurted his way through mud and stood with his companions, the globe in one hand, and his sword in the other.

Acorn began to play his pipes, a rhino lullaby that began slowly and gently and then bled into one of many aggressive battle hymns that echoed to the very edges of the forest. Daytime nappers awoke with a start, and frogs green and black halted their days activities to listen to the peculiar noise from the alien instrument thinking it was some horrid creature trumpeting in their swamp. They grabbed their weapons and began to track the sound.

The hunter halted mid-step and the tune reminded him of a faint memory from his childhood. He had forgotten his childhood along with his language, until now. He found himself humming to the song, and a few words of verse slipped from his lips: “…and we’ve come to fight, and put the orc heads on a pike…” When the music stopped, his memory lapsed again, and he forgot his words, and he regained his focus on the hunt.

When Acorn finished the song, he said, “Let’s see if the Witch’s fog can block that.”

“Well done, son,” Oak said.

“It was one of mother’s favorites.”

Slip pulled his fingers out of his earholes and opened his eyes, glad the noise had stopped.

Artur scanned the foggy perimeter, and asked “Do you know ‘Rock Grubs Taste Like Chicken?’”

The younger rhino shook his head. “Never heard of it.”

Feeling inspired by the Rhino’s bagpiping, he began to sing:

When you’re in dungeons dark and deep

And you run out of things to eat

Try a rock grub

because they taste just like chicken

There’s vibrations behind sandstone

and you’re stuck there all alone

start to dig and you will find

a meal that’s truly fine

A rock grub

and it tastes just like chicken

All four began to laugh at the absurd song, and suddenly a dart came out of the fog and struck Acorn’s bagpipes. The four turned to whence the dart came. Acorn pulled the dart from the bag, cursing, and tossed it to the ground. “It will take me a day’s work to patch that!”

Another dart whizzed by Acorn’s ear, and he called “Shields!” and with military discipline both he and his father unslung their shields and readied their great spears, ready to fight the foe in the fog. Artur and Slip crouched behind the armored Rhinos, and several more darts thudded lightly into their shields.

Artur said, “Taunt him. Shout. Make him think you’re pinned down. I’m going to flank him.” With that, Artur handed the magic globe to Oak, and set off to his left, keeping trees between himself and the estimated position of his enemy, and the Rhinos cried out, “Oh Dad he got me!” “No son! Hang in there!”

Slip silently slid off to the right, he too hoping to circle around behind the hunter. He climbed a tree, and leaped from branch to branch, and sometimes swinging on thick ropes of lichen.

The fog was disorienting, but Artur quietly picked his way hopping from stone to log to piles of wet bark, until he saw a glint of light from the hunter’s helm. The hairy man crouched behind a rotted log at the edge of the fogless region, a woven basket on his back, and he blew dart after dart from a pipe. On his back was a woven basket.

There was a sudden crack of a branch above the hunter, and both he and Artur glanced up, and Slip the frog came tumbling down, luckily grabbing one last branch. He dangled some ten feet above the hunter, who instantly reached for his spear, ready to impale the frog man. Artur charged, and just before the hunter could thrust his spear, Artur cried out and startled the man, who tried to bring his spear about to meet the new threat.

He was too slow. Artur hacked the tip of the spear and then threw his shoulder into the hunter, to tumbled back over the log. He regained his footing before Artur, and Artur kicked one leg out from beneath him, and his enemy stumbled into a tree. A strap on his basket snapped, and it dangled from one shoulder. Artur closed with him, but the learn hunter grappled Artur’s sword arm with a strength that belied his lean physique. Slip regained his sense and dropped down, drawing his dagger but not sure how to help. Each time he approached, the two grappling men almost trampled him.

Then heavy squishy mud sounds announced the approach of the Rhinos, and the two great shielded warriors bellowed a war cry and crashed through the bush. They, too, almost trampled Slip, who managed to scurry up a skinny birch tree in the nick of time. Seeing the grappling of the two men, Artur’s disciplined combat training versus the primal instincts of the hunter, they dropped their shields and spears and quickly wrestled the feral man to the ground and Oak put a knee to his chest.

The man howled, and scratched and bit, but Oak shrugged it off. He dug a finger into a nerve in the man’s shoulder, and the man screamed for a few seconds, and then whimpered like a dog when Oak eased up. “Good boy!” he said mockingly, and roughly patted the man on head.

While Oak kept the hunter pinned to the muddy ground, Artur took an interest in the basket that had fallen off in the struggle. He peek inside the lid, and saw a thick, thorny vine wiggle about, and a hiss came from it’s flowery head. “This must be it.” He carefully lifted the creature from the basket, studying it’s leaves. The creature clicked repeatedly, surveying its surroundings. The hunter saw him handling the vine and howled in protest.

“Nuh…nuh…….No!”

Oak dug a finger into the hunter’s shoulder again, and the hunter was quiet, but tears began to run down his eyes. His eyes followed Artur as he handled the snake vine.

Suddenly there were deep throaty shouts on all sides. On one side of a semi-circle there were dozens of armed black frogs, and on the other side, dozens of armed green frogs, and they all were shouting at once.

“The horrible noise came from here!”

“I see one of your people with these monsters!”

“Is this some kind of plot to run us out?!”

“Why is one of yours with these creatures!” shouted a green as he pointed at Slip. “You’re in league with the hunter and these beasts!”

“No, no!” shouted Slip, both of his hands up, emphasizing his not wanting to fight. “You don’t understand!” But amid all the shouting, most of the Green frogs could not hear him.

“Impossible! They’re fighting the hunter!”

“It’s a trick! A trick of the witch!”

“Kill the greens!”

“Kill the blacks and their monsters!”

All the frogs became more agitated, and began making slow, half-steps toward the other side. They wanted to fight, but were not ready to commit. Acorn whirled from one direction to the next as the mass of frogs closed about them, not sure where the first volley of spears would come from. Slip continued shouting to his people and the greens to wait. Oak, aware of the threat from the frogs, was more concerned about keeping the Hunter subdued, and kept one knee to hairy man’s chest. All the while Artur, overwhelmed by the multitude of threats, put the snake in the basket and slung the strap over his shoulder.

The hunter howled at this, and in vain reached one hand toward the basket. It was an unearthly, grief stricken, haunted howl. “NooOOOOOoo!” Oak, surprised, leaped off the pinned man, and the frogs suddenly ceased their shouting and threatening.

All watched the wailing hunter now, who, bruised and battered, scrabbled through the mud and swamp grasses on all fours and reached up for the basket, continuously wailing. A grief stricken love transcended the witch’s curse on his tongue and memory. “Don’t take my baby.”

Artur pulled away, as one might from a leper, but couldn’t bring himself to strike the hunter. “Please? Please!” The hunter got up and stumbled forward, reaching for Artur and the basket. Artur, with reluctance, struck him with the hilt of his sword, and the man fell head over heels, weeping, sniffling, blood running from his nose. And he scrabbled forward again, half rising, “Puh—Please!”

All watched this scene silently, and Artur this time struck the wild man with his fist, and he tumbled over. Artur pitied the poor creature, and he was surprised to find his cheeks wet with his own tears.

“Please..” Exhausted, the wild man lay sprawled in the mud, whimpering.

All the frogs forgot their hostility and marveled at this Terror of the Foggy Swamp reduced to a whimpering, pathetic state. This man who had killed and eaten so many both of their peoples, now begged for some creature in the basket as a mother or father for their children.

Artur looked at Oak, who watched him intently. He knew what the Rhino man was thinking, even without his gift. Would Artur return the snake vine to the grief-stricken hunter, or to the witch to get the cure for the Horn Rot? Artur thought of how he might beg for the life of his pigs, or his donkeys, or his horse, or his own human children, and saw the same in the hunter who now wanted his child back. Artur knew he should have no pity for this man who stalked them through the swamp and tried to kill him and his friends three times, but he did.

True to his word, and knowing that life was filled with hard choices, Artur made his decision. In the eerie silence broken only by the snuffles and whimpers of the defeated hunter, Artur said to his companions, “Let’s go to the witch.”

Oak, appreciating the loyalty of his friend, considered the fallen hunter. “We can’t leave him here to get killed. Not like this.”

Acorn protested, “We don’t owe him anything, father! He tried to kill us. He’s a murderer of frog people.”

One of the Greens shouted, “If you don’t do it, we will.”

A Black replied, “Hear, hear! That’s one thing a Black can agree with a Green on.”

Slip scratched his chin, and considered the situation. Killing the hunter together would united the two tribes, at least for the day. But if the hunter escaped, they might unite for a week, or a month, and who knows, maybe they might come to some equitable arrangement on the hunting and fishing rights of the two tribes. “Slip has an idea!”

One of the blacks chided him, “Not another one of Slip’s dumb ideas! Catch fish with a string and a hook, Slip said once!” Frogs on both sides chuckled at this.

“Dry meat to make it last longer!” laughed another.

“Yuck, who eats dry meat?!”

“Slip does!”

There was more mocking laughter. Slip, distressed, shouted above the din.

“No! Listen!” insisted Slip. “Let’s let the hunter go, and we’ll hunt him together. Let him live in fear every day as we have. Let him check over his shoulder every other second. If we catch him, then we’ll kill and eat him. Slip will kill him, and use his meat on hooks to catch fish!” There was some murmuring, and hemming and hawing among the two tribes of frogs, and the leaders of both tribes looked to each other and nodded.

At this Acorn grabbed the whimpering hunter by the hair on his head and pulled him up. He picked up the metal helm that fell off the man’s head, and put it in the defeated man’s hands. The hunter looked up at Acorn, who put a hand to his chest and shoved him in a direction away from both tribes of frogs. “Go!”

Artur began walking off in the opposite direction, into the fog. The hunter looked longingly after the man and the basket slung over his shoulder. Acorn shoved him again. “Go!”

Slip drew his dagger, and pointed it threateningly at the hunter. He joined Acorn in pushing the man away. “Go, now!”

A green hurled a spear that struck the mud just a foot away from the hunter. “Go Hunter!” Artur was out of sight now, and the hunter focused on the threat at hand. Green frogs and black shouted threats and shook their weapons. “Go! Go!”

The hunter turned and stumbled over a rock. Another spear landed in moss to his left. The hunter picked himself up. A thrown stone stung his back. A mudball struck his ear. Overtaken with an acute fear for his life, the hunter bolted off into the fog. There were great “hurrahs!” from the frogs. The Greens began to sing a hunting chant to stoke their courage for the hunt. The blacks did the same, and a few from each side noticed that the words were different, but the tunes were similar. Oak touched palms to Slip, and said “We’ll meet again, my friend.” Slip then hurried off to join in the song of his people. Oak and Acorn followed in Artur’s footsteps to find the witch and retrieve the cure. As they went out of sight of the frogs, Oak and Acorn could hear a great hunting cry from both tribes as they sent forth to stalk and slay the hunter.

Story Fragment: Poison Darts and Witches

As I wrote the witch into the story, I first thought she would just be a quick in-and-out minor character.  However, I felt like exploring and contrasting the righteousness of Artur with the mysterious, morally ambiguous worldview of the witch.  I also wanted to go into how the hunter and the witch have affection for this snake vine creature.

I also decided, when I revise the story, that Slip will refer to himself in the third person, not unlike dull witted servants in fantasy literature, and not unlike Smeagol from Lord of the Rings. In Slip’s case it will be the linguistic curiosity of his people.

Here is the story fragment:

The hunter paced himself, and with the single minded focus of a feral hunter he carefully counted out the distance in his head as he pushed through the fog and the darkness of night. Before long he saw the diffused light of the raised lantern. Here he stopped, and felt around for some tall reeds or swamp grasses. Finding a cluster of reeds, he slowly eased his basket into them, and turned hit attention to the lamp. Why would these people leave their lamp up in such an obvious place? Other humans had come through in the past, and always took their lamps and torches with them. There was something odd about this. He eased his way forward, slowly, just his head above the water, and saw the bloodied hand print on the birch tree. That was no print from someone stumbling after holding a wound. He could tell it was deliberate, as though he had slit a rabbit’s throat and left it for a fox to find.

The prey fancied itself the hunter.

Slowly, he retreated a few feet into the darkness and drew out his blowpipe, some darts, and the Keckle bladder. With the skill of a veteran hunter, he set the pipe between his teeth, and dipped a dart into the bladder. He than slid the dart into the pipe, and rocked it back until it slid back close to his lips. Taking advantage of the sound stopping quality of the fog, he then proceeded to blow dart after dart into the foggy region surrounding lamp. After about a dozen darts, he eased back to the reeds, took his snake-in-a-basket, and quietly swam his way back to the boulder he came from.

* * *

Artur, Oak, Acorn and Slip crouched silently in the fog where they could see the haze of the lamp. Each was hidden from the others, but knew about where the others were hidden. As soon as a figure walked into the lamplight, they would charge.

An hour passed at least, and nothing happened save for wet feet, wet bottoms, and mosquito bites. The Rhinos shrugged off the mosquitoes thanks to their tough leathery skin. Slip covered himself with mud to keep them away, but Artur steeled himself for a time, until he too figured he could roll in the mud. As he stood up, something else bit him in the arm. It felt like a hornet’s sting.

Slapping is right arm, he felt a tiny dart with feathers, and inadvertently drove the dart deeper. Realizing his peril, he estimated the angle of approach, yanked out the dart, and began to stumble in search of his attacker. The site of the wound rapidly began to swell, burn and itch terribly. Before long he tripped on the cluster of reeds where the basket was previously stashed, and fell headlong, choking on muddy water. Artur coughed and sputtered, and spun about, trying to get his bearings.

He began to feel feverish, and in a moment uncharacteristic of such a great warrior, began to panic and spun about, desperate to get his bearings in the foggy black of night.

Suddenly a hoarse voice spoke from behind, it was Slip. “Artur!”

Artur spun about, almost decapitating the frog with his sword, but thankfully he swung too high.

“It’s Slip! Don’t kill Slip, Artur!”

“Oh Slip. I’m dying,” gasped Artur. “ He shot me with some dart. I don’t know where I am. I…”

“You not going to die. Come. Take my hand.”

Artur felt for the frog’s hand, and upon finding the suction cupped fingers, let Slip take him back to the island where Oak and Acorn waited. He stumbled forward onto the wet mossy island and passed out.

* * *

The first thing Artur noticed, upon awakening, was the buzz of insects. He blinked his eyes a few times, and he saw above him, in the awning in front of a mossy, moldy wooden hut, were two great hornet’s nests buzzing with activity. He almost jumped up in panic, but a sudden splitting headache put him back down on the hard planked porch of the hut.

There was a familiar laughter of Rhinos and the Frog behind him, and he craned his neck back to see his three companions lounging on the porch. They looked quite content. Then he braced himself on his elbows and rose slowly, looking about. To his right a curtain of hanging lichen covered a doorway, and a faint smoke or incense wafted out through the tendrils. Above him, great white hornets darted away and returned to the two nests, but none of the insects disturbed him or his companions. All around the hut, but a few yards out, was a thick gray fog that seemed to glow in the diffused daylight.

“Good morning sleepyhead!” said Oak. “Or afternoon more likely.”

Artur flipped over, and now realized he had a poultice of stinky herbs wrapped around his arm where the dart had pierced him. The smell made his nose wrinkle. He pulled his attention away from his wound and finally sat up. “This is the witches hut, I presume.”

Slip hopped over Artur and crouched next to him. “It is! Lucky for you we found her. She waits inside.”

Artur turned to the thick tendrils of lichen hanging over the doorway. “Waits inside for what?”

Oak said, “She’s preparing the cure. But we have to pay her.”

Artur felt his coin purse. “I don’t have much money on me.”

“Oh she doesn’t want money. She won’t say yet what she wants. She seems friendly enough.

At this, the heavy curtain parted and a short, fat young-looking woman with dark brown hair twisted into dreadlocks came out. She wore a patchwork dress and leaned on a gnarled stick a head taller than she was. She had a great smile of large gapped teeth that gave her an ogreish appearance. A pretty ogre, if ogres could be pretty. “Feeling better Artur? Oh good. That husband of mine can be quite a nuisance.”

Artur’s eyebrows went up at this. “Your..your husband? What is your name?”

“Yes my husband, well ex-husband to be precise. As for my name, they call me Joy.”

Acorn chuckled softly. “And they’re all terrified of a pretty witch named Joy?”

The witch’s eyes shot directly toward Acorn, which was enough, but she pointed with her free hand for dramatic effect, and then two swarms of hornets whipped from the hanging nests and began to buzz around the Rhino’s head. He ducked and rolled off the porch, splashing in the muddy water, and the swarms gave way and then returned to their respective nests.

There was a mix of nervous and sincere laughter. Artur was genuinely amused, but it took all Slip could to save face and be polite around this witch his and the rival tribe feared so greatly.

A muddy Acorn poked his head above the edge of the porch, and seeing it safe, dragged himself back up. Half covered in mud and bits of woody debris, he bowed to the witch and said “I stand corrected, Joy.”

The witch beamed at this, and flicked back her dreadlocks. “Shall we get down to the business of this cure you seek?” Joy began to turn toward the curtain of lichen, as to go back into the hut. She stopped when Oak spoke.

“Indeed Madam,” said Oak, rising. “If you would be so kind. But what payment would you take?”

The witch turned to him, “Oh a trifle really. I want my snake vine back. My husband, my ex husband, took it.”

“Snake… vine?” asked Artur.

“Yes, think of it as a thorny snake, only it’s a plant. He’s a plant. I have its mate, so to speak, in my hut. They only flower once every thirty years and this year is the year. I can only delay flowering for only so long.”

Artur slowly shook his head. “I don’t see why I should get involved in your post marital conflicts.”

The witch took a few steps forward, and Artur noticed her furry toes. She pointed with her free hand at the two Rhinos. “You should if you want to help your friends.”

The two Rhinos looked at Artur expectantly. At this point Oak was willing to curse Artur’s name and go find this snake vine himself, if he had to. He didn’t want to. Acorn, not knowing Artur as Oak did, merely hoped Artur would continue to help them. Hunting in this swamp, in this fog, they would need all the help they could get.

Artur was not intimidated by the witch, but stepped to the side rather than away, and circled her slowly, so she knew it. She in turn was no fool, and turned about, not intimidated by the great muscled warrior. Artur stopped next to his Rhino friends. “It’s not the custom of my people to meddle in others domestic affairs. If not for my friends, I’d say you need to find this snake vine on your own. Nevertheless, I’ll get it back for you if you have the cure for what ails them.”

“I do.” said the witch. “Give me the snake vine, and I’ll give you the cure.” She smiled, and deep inside this bothered Artur. He never exacted a price for helping people, and the witch’s willingness to use the Rhino people as leverage to get her pet back rubbed him the wrong way.

In this moment, the witch could see Artur was troubled. From a pocket in her cloak, the witch pulled out a polished, orange marble stone. Immediately, the fog around the hut dissolved to thin air. “Hold this stone, Artur, and the fog will give way. Put it away, and nature will reassert itself.” She put the stone back in her pocket, and fog began to rise from the marsh about them. She gave it to Artur, and he put it in a belt pouch.

“Very well, Witch…Joy. You’ll get your snake vine.”

He turned to his companions, “Are you ready to go?”

“Not Slip!” said the black frog. “Slip did his part! He wants no part of chasing hunters or witches. But…” he walked over to Oak, his feet flapping on the wooden porch. “Oak is a black frog now. If Oak wants Slip to help, Slip will go.”

Oak looked down at the little person who honored him with membership in his tribe. An extra hand in dealing with this hunter would be welcome, but the dart that struck down Artur could strike the frog down a well. More importantly, his own people needed the witch’s medicine.

“Slip, if you will help us find the hunter, the three of us will deal with him, and you can go.”

Slip rubbed his chin with his four fingered hand, and he rocked back and forth on his webbed feet. His own people were terrified of this hunter and the witch, and it took a lot for him to overcome this learned fear. “Alright. Slip will find this hunter. Get out your pretty stone.” With this, he hopped off the porch with a splat onto the wet mud.

The three warriors on the porch each looked at one another, and descended the steps to the marsh below. Artur asked Oak which way they came from, and drawing out the stone, set about retracing their steps through the swamp. As they proceeded forward, the fog about them dissolved so they could see for some thirty yards in all directions. If they did not find the hunter, the hunter would find them.

* * *

As the fog began to reform, Joy went back through the curtain of lichen into the dim, candle-lit hut. Embers smouldered in the fireplace. The petite ogress put wood into the fireplace and blew it to life, and then hung her iron cauldron over it. She left it to simmer and surveyed her inventory. It was a typical witches hut, with shelves filled with jars and pots of ingredients, crystals, charms, knick knacks and paddy whacks. There were even bones for dogs, but no dogs had come by in years, the witch noted sadly. She needed some fresh dog tongues for spells to enhance taste, and some dog noses for spells to enhance smell.

Setting aside the distraction of dog parts, she refocused herself. Ah yes, what she needed was in the the drawer under her desk. She pulled out a heavy black, glass globe from the little writing desk and sat on the bearskin in the middle of the hut. She felt the smooth, oily fur of the bearskin, and briefly remembered when her husband-to-be brought it to her as an engagement present. She remembered how he had self-sewn stitches in his left shoulder, still healing, and festering, from the beast whose skin he claimed. She accepted his gift and healed his festering wound, and the two married soon thereafter.

Distractions again. This business with the Rhinos had disturbed her tranquility. She cleared her mind and focused on the glass globe, reaching out beyond time and space and then coming back, observing the world in the abstract: The red haired Horsemen of the north as Centaurs; the dwarfs as animated pickaxes, chopping away at stone; Artur’s people as anthropomorphic pigs. There were rats among the pigs with meat cleavers. How odd. She looked to the lands of the Cat people, and the lands of the Rhinos, and saw rats with needles. She looked to the desert lands of the Snake men, and there were rats there, shaking hands with them. And then there was a rat looking at her. “Who are you,” it said without speaking. It was not an anthropomorphic rat. There were no rat-men as far as the old witch knew.

“Who are you?” it said again. This was not abstract, but a real rat asking a real question. There was something amiss with this. The witch pulled out of her trance and put the glass globe away in its drawer. If there was a rat playing with sorcery, then that would explain the rats in the images she saw. It must have a seeing stone of its own, or perhaps some other means of surveying time and space that intersected with hers.

The pot began to simmer on the fire, so Joy went to her storage racks and added a little of this and a little of that. The last ingredient she added was ground rhino horn. That ex husband of hers had slain a rhino warrior so long ago. Its eyes, brain, heart and liver proved useful, and finally the horn was serving a purpose. They didn’t need to know this, though.