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|A chance encounter in the woods and a fair trade enable a young woman and her smallest brother to escape a life as slaves. |
This story was inspired by Sabrina Seltenreich's picture.
Mushrooms and Rabbit Fur
Word Count: 3585
Hedda poked at the ground with her digging stick, her mind on things other than gathering jojen roots. The gnarly tubers were a staple food for the villagers who spent their lives on the floodplain southwest of Lake Hotha and northwest of Brownleech Swamp. They grew in plenty throughout the Wolfwood, though the foragers never went deeper than necessary, keeping to the edge closest to the small gathering of houses and barns. Flatbread was the most common way to prepare jojen roots, but the varieties of dishes the village cooks produced were as numberless as bloodsuckers in the swamp. Hedda swatted one, leaving a red smear on the browned skin of her ankle.
She rocked back on her heels and wiped sweat from her face, streaking it with rich dirt. No one had ever called her beautiful, but her face was noble. High cheekbones and a strong jaw were the legacy of her mother, although her wide nose came from her grandmother. Hedda kept her hair in a tight braid that started at the crown of her head and ended below her waist. Her clothes were made of sturdy cotton fabric that she had traded for in Litchturn, on the northwestern coast of Lake Hotha. She had made them herself, along with the rest of her family’s clothes. The tightly laced top had once been white, and the side-split skirt was the dark brown of her eyes and hair. She was tired and dirty as she wrestled another root from the earth. Another mosquito whined in her ear.
“Sun’s getting low. Time to head home,” Hedda muttered as she flicked the dead mosquito away. Standing, she straightened her skirt and brushed the dirt and detritus from her knees.
“Speaking to one’s self out loud is a sure sign of an addled mind,” a sudden grumpy voice proclaimed.
Startled, Hedda turned toward the voice but saw no one. The speaker cleared his throat, and she looked down.
A pair of gleaming black eyes gazed back at her from beneath a wrinkled brow. His skin was a darker shade of brown than Hedda’s, his light green eyebrows stark against it. Tufts of similar green hair with an occasional strand of gray sprouted beneath a feathered cap. The cape draped over his hunched shoulders, lined with rabbit fur, would have been a half cape on a grown man. His clothes were simply made of undecorated wool and animal skins.
“Careful you don’t swallow a bug, woman, standing there with your mouth open like that.”
“You’re one of the little people!” was all Hedda could gasp in reply.
“Said the frost giant to the man,” he grumped, leaning on a crooked staff. He straightened himself, puffing out his chest. “I am a gnome.”
Hedda dropped back to her knees, a wide grin on her face. Now at eye level, she took one of the gnome’s four-fingered hands and shook it enthusiastically.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, friend gnome, an honor. My name is Hedda. I offer you food, shelter, and water,” Hedda bowed as she spoke. Her mother and grandmother had raised her on fairy stories, and she knew that the best way to handle one of the little people was to be as kind and helpful as possible. She had never heard that they lived in the forest near her home and had also never imagined meeting any of the fae creatures.
“Perhaps you aren’t as stupid as you look after all,” the gnome smirked. “My name is Gilmatt Glittergrub, but Gil is just fine. Well met, Hedda, granddaughter of Menda. I thank you for your hospitality, but my home is not far from here.”
“You knew Grandma Menda?” The day was full of surprises for Hedda.
“Aye, and a good woman she was. Pardon me, but I want those mushrooms behind you.” Gil stepped around the kneeling woman and began to pluck up fungi and put them into a basket.
“I didn’t know there were gnomes in the Wolfwood.”
“Of course you didn’t. Normally we avoid you people at all costs. No one else from your village comes this deep into the forest, Hedda. The wolves see to that.”
“I’ve never seen any wolves.”
“You never saw any gnomes before today either, did you?”
“Do pixies live in the Wolfwood as well? What about unicorns?”
“Woman, how else do you think the flowers bloom year-round and the streams stay fresh and clean? Certainly not because of you people, with your midden heaps and your plowed fields.”
New and wild ideas blossomed in Hedda’s mind. “What about elves?”
“You chatter more than squirrels in heat. Elves? You are addled, woman, if you think there are still elves. Everyone knows the elves left long and long ago, after the Separation by your Old King Grummond. Now, woman, perhaps you’d answer a question or two of mine own.”
“Certainly.” Hedda shifted her weight; her feet were going to sleep beneath her.
“Do you have cattle in your village?”
“Yes, but I’m not sure how many.”
Gil waved a hand in dismissal. “Tell me, have you seen any mushrooms about this area? Fly wart? Gobble tail? Morel or dryad’s saddle?”
“Isn’t that gobble tail right there?” Hedda pointed to a shelf of brown and white striped fungi on a nearby tree.
“So it is.” The gnome snorted and waddled over, leaning on his staff. He began pulling them off, dusting away the clinging bark, and dropping them into his half-filled basket.
“I think I may have seen some morel and fly wart under a stand of birches over there.” Hedda gestured deeper into the wood as she rose.
“You probably did,” Gil nodded. “Wouldn’t be surprised to find some dryad’s saddle there, too. They like birch litter.”
“Are these good to eat?” Hedda asked helping the gnome gather gobble tail that was out of his reach.
He gave a barking laugh. “Hardly. The morel or dryad’s saddle is much tastier, but you must cook them. These here are used in teas to make your insides healthy.” Gil gave her a poke in the back over a kidney.
“What are you going to poison with the fly wart?”
“Flies, what else. That’s plenty, thank you.”
Hedda followed him as he shuffled toward the birches. A wolf gave a lonely cry in the distance, and she was suddenly reminded of the approaching darkness.
“Aye,” said the gnome. “You’ll want to be off home soon. Before you go, however, I have a favor to ask of you, woman. As friendly as you’ve turned out to be, I did not seek you out for companionship. Neither did I truly need you to point out the locations of mushrooms I could have found myself.”
Intrigued, Hedda gave the gnome a sidelong glance as they walked, waiting for his request.
“When you come to the woods tomorrow to dig more jojen root, would you bring me some mushrooms from your cow fields? The ones I want pop up early, not long after dawn. They are similar to fairy ring mushrooms: fawn colored caps and flexible stipes. They grow directly on the… ah… cow pies, however, instead of in a ring on the grass. Also their gills are not white, and the stipe is often hollow. The mushrooms I want have brownish-purple gills. If you bruise the cap with a fingernail, it purples as well. Are you familiar with them, Hedda?”
“The fairy rings, yes. But the ones you speak of, no. I think I can find them though.”
“Good girl. You know the forked tree by the spring?” Gil stopped walking and looked up at Hedda.
She nodded slowly. It was one of her favorite places to picnic.
“Meet me there tomorrow, then. I will compensate you for your time and effort.”
“All right, friend gnome. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”
“Until then.” The gnome gave her a wink, pulled his hood up, and vanished as if he’d never been there at all.
Another wolf howled, closer this time. Hedda shivered in the cooling twilight air and hurried home.
* * *
Her brothers were in their customary places on the porch as Hedda mounted the stairs. Their home was on poles taller by half than a man to keep it above the flood line. Other structures in the village, such as their chicken coop and several of the other houses, were on the ground. They had all been built since the last flood, when Hedda had been a toddler.
“Here’s the maid now,” sneered Blith.
“You’re late,” said Bronn.
Hedda ignored their hard, dark looks as she went inside. Little Tem slipped a hand in hers as she entered.
“Pa’s in his cups again, Hedda. He’s been asking where you were,” he whispered, his large brown eyes held worry as he looked up at his sister. Their mother had died birthing him eight years ago. Hedda was his sister and his mother. She knelt and wrapped her arms around him in a ferocious hug.
“Thanks for the warning.” She gave him a quick kiss and went into the kitchen. He followed her as always.
“What did you do today, Tem?”
“Chopped firewood like Pa told me, but I wanted to go fishing with the other boys.” He climbed onto a stool, legs dangling.
“You be careful with that axe, Tem. One slip and you could hurt yourself bad.” Hedda did not approve of the chores their father often assigned Tem. They were usually ones Blith or Bronn should be doing. Arguing with her father was like beating her head against a stone wall; she would end up with a bloody nose or lip.
She stirred the stew she had set over the coals at midday before starting in on cleaning the jojen roots.
“You did a good job keeping an eye on supper for me, Tem. None of the veggies are scorched, and the coals are just right.”
Tem’s sad face lit up at his sister’s praise.
“You’re turning that boy into a woman, making him stir soup all day.” Their father, Bors, stomped into the room, rattling the dishes on the shelves. “But what do I care? He’s not mine anyway.”
“You shouldn’t say things like that, Pa. It’s not true, and you know it.” Hedda’s anger bubbled over, but she kept her eyes on the jojen root she was scrubbing.
“Don’t argue with me, girl. Momma’s baby, daddy’s maybe.” His harsh laughter smelled like alcohol. He reached over her shoulder and emptied her root sack into the washbasin. “You useless woman. There’s not enough here to make a day’s worth of bread. Useless! I’ll never marry you off. No decent man would have you. Where’s my bottle? And hurry up with supper!” Disgusted, he lumbered out of the kitchen.
Hedda did not mention that she already had a plentiful supply of jojen in the root cellar under the hen house. The only reason she went out for more was to enjoy the peace of the Wolfwood.
Tem sniffled, and she looked up from the muddied water.
“Don’t cry, Tem. It will only make him angrier if he sees it. He’s a mean old drunk, but he’s your father.”
“No, he’s not. I don’t want him.” Clearly upset, Tem leapt down from the stool. “I hate him. I wish he was dead!” He was out the door before Hedda could stop him. She heard the front door slam and their other brothers jeering at him as Tem ran off to be alone with his hurts.
He did not return a short while later when Hedda rang the dinner bell. Tem did not come as she ladled seconds into her father and brothers’ bowls. He did not show up after dinner as she cleaned the kitchen up alone. By the time she crawled under her blankets on her straw pallet, she was very worried. Hedda lay awake, staring into darkness, listening to the house creaking in the wind and her family snoring. Some time after the moon rose, she heard the door to her tiny room creak open and then close quietly. Tears of relief welled in her eyes as Tem crawled under the covers with her.
“I love you, Hedda,” his voice was muffled by the blankets and her nightgown as he hugged her fiercely.
“I love you too, Tem.” She stroked her brother’s tight curls and said a silent prayer to any god listening.
* * *
They were up before dawn, feeding the chickens and gathering eggs while their father and brothers still snored.
“I’m going fishing today,” Tem announced once they were finished at the henhouse.
“You’d better leave before they’re awake, then. I’ll tell Pa I sent you. Just make sure you bring home at least a hundred fishes,” Hedda teased.
He gave her a smile and a hug that warmed her heart. “I’ll bring back two hundred.”
Hedda laughed as she watched him run off to fetch his fishing pole. She had not forgotten about Gil the gnome’s mushrooms. Dawn found her in the cow pasture examining cow droppings for fungal growth.
At midmorning the men were still snoring after she had finished the rest of her chores. Packing herself a meal of jobread, some deer jerky, and a couple of apples, Hedda began to wonder what kind of payment the gnome would give her for the sack of mushrooms she’d found. She could not think of anything the gnome would think of as equal payment other than more mushrooms. Perhaps they would go well with Tem’s two hundred fish.
Still uncertain that she had not been dreaming, Hedda was surprised to find Gil waiting for her beneath her picnic tree. It was a pretty spot, with water sparkling in the late morning sunlight. Her grandmother had brought her there when she had been a couple of years younger than Tem.
“How did you know I’d be here this early?” Hedda asked, taking a seat under the forked tree and handing over the sack.
“I didn’t. I just knew you had come this early.” He spread the mushrooms out over the mossy ground and began looking them over.
“Do you always ask so many questions, woman? A little bird told me. A mockingbird.”
“I didn’t know mockingbirds could talk,” she said, grinning as she unfolded the bundle that was her lunch.
“All birds talk, woman. You people just haven’t figured out how to listen.”
“Are you hungry, Gil? I brought food.”
The gnome plucked a piece of flat jobread and an apple from the proffered cloth.
“Many thanks, Hedda,” he said around a mouthful of bread. They finished their noontime meal in companionable silence, enjoying the music of the forest. Afterward, Gil pulled a folded cloth from a sack at his side.
“I thank you for the mushrooms, Hedda. They are greater in quality and quantity than I’d hoped. Since I don’t travel the lands of mankind, this particular variety is difficult to come by.
“When I saw you in the woods yesterday, I thought that at best you’d run away and at worst you’d attack me with your digging stick. To find true friendliness and hospitality in one of mankind is a gift indeed. The acorn is not the oak, but you have grandmother’s heart.”
He handed her the folded cloth. It was spun wool, gray, and finer than any garment she had ever owned. Trimmed in rabbit fur, it was a longer version of the cape Gil wore. Hedda rubbed it against her cheek, savoring its softness. Moved by his kindness, Hedda scooped the gnome up in a most undignified embrace. She planted a kiss on his cheek as she gently set him back down.
Gil blushed as he helped her drape it over her shoulders.
“It’s a Hide-Behind cloak, Hedda. A small bit of magic, but incredibly useful at times. Simply cover your head with the hood, and you will be unseen by any eyes that see.”
“Magic?” Hedda’s dark eyes were wide. “But I can’t acc…”
“Yes, you can. You must. It is a gift from one of the little people, remember? Refusal would be the utmost insult.”
Hedda sighed in wonderment and stroked the fur.
“Also remember that just because you aren’t seen doesn’t mean you won’t be sensed. Noises you make will be heard. If you bump into someone they will feel you. Beasts will still smell you. Use it wisely and use it well, my friend.”
* * *
As she approached her home, Hedda could see Bronn and Blith sitting on the porch, doing nothing, as usual. If they saw her, however, they made no sign of it. Stroking the fur at her cheek, she ascended the stairs as quietly as possible. Her brothers were talking loudly, masking any sound she made on the stairs. Neither looked at her as she joined them. The cloak really was magical. She was invisible.
“When’s Pa getting back with that booze?”
“He didn’t say. What do you think Pa will tell her tomorrow when they leave in the wagon?” Bronn asked.
“That’s she’s getting new material to make clothes, or some other such thing as women love to hear, no doubt,” Blith replied.
Bronn’s laughter was harsh. “I wish I could be there to see the look on her face when she finds out she’s getting an iron collar and not a new dress.”
Hedda’s hand touched her throat as sudden fear choked her.
“The boy’s worth more, of course, but the trader said she’s worth more than we thought since she’s a virgin.”
“Only because no man would have her. And how’s Tem worth more? He’s just a scrawny, puling babe.”`
“Who knows? Who cares? If they’ll give us more gold, let’s take it.”
Hedda’s brothers laughed greedily.
“You know, Blith, you should see about buying yourself a wife. No woman but a bought woman would want to wake up to a face like that.”
Bronn shoved his brother. Blith cursed and took a swing at him, starting one of their many brawls.
As quietly as possible, Hedda moved around them and through the wide open door and into the house, panicking. She went to her room, closed the door silently, and curled up on her pallet trying to be calm.
Slavery was illegal in Suth. It had been since the Separation of King Grummond more than five hundred years ago. However, the king’s city of Kirkul was leagues away from the shores of Lake Hotha. Across the lake was the outpost city Christobel, and beyond it was the border to the barbaric Outlands.
Hedda did not want to imagine the horrors life promised in an iron collar beyond the lands of Suth. Shoving her few belongings into a sack, she began a stealthy preparation of the things they would need to escape safely.
* * *
It was nearly dark by the time she caught up with Tem. He was carrying a stringer full of fish, his pole over his shoulder. If the cord had not been wrapped around his wrist, he would have dropped the fish when Hedda’s invisible hand grasped his arm. Her sudden appearance at his side was startling.
“Hedda, how did. . .”
“There’s no time, Tem. We have to go. I heard father and the boys shouting for us.”
“All of them? Gods, we’re going to both get beatings now, Hedda. We’d better hurry home.” His face screwed up as he fought tears. “I’d give anything not to have to go home ever again. I hate them. They’re all alike, and I hate them.”
“We’re not going home, Tem. Never again. Not with them. They’re planning to take us to Christobel, Tem. They’re going to sell us to slavers.”
Color fled her brother’s face. “They wouldn’t! Slavery is illegal, Hedda. The priest that comes through is always talking about how. . .”
“I know, Tem. I know. But I overheard them talking selling us. They were laughing and boasting about how they’ll spend their gold.”
Tem’s bottom lip jutted out defiantly. “They can’t sell us if we run away. Let’s go to Litchturn, Hedda. Auntie Jully would take us in for a few days. She’ll help us get away.”
“No, Tem,” she said, handing him the bag she had packed with his things and the hatchet from the woodpile. The axe was hers for now, as well as the machete. “We’ll go south and west, through the Wolfwood to Red Branch, Gulpha, or maybe even Kirkul.”
“A real city, Hedda? We’ll get to see a real city?” His eagerness to escape turned to something else. “What do you mean we’re going through the Wolfwood? No one who goes too far into the Wolfwood ever comes out . . . And where did you get that pretty cloak?”
Hedda smiled for the first time in hours. “A friend, Tem. If we’re lucky he’ll find us in the wood. We’ll be all right. Fire will keep the wolves away.”
“Will your friend help us get to Red Branch?” Tem asked hopefully.
“I think so. He knew Grandma Menda. Let’s go now and get as far away from the house as possible.” She ruffled his hair. “That’s a fine catch you’ve got there. We’ll have a good supper tonight.”
“And we won’t have to share it with Pa, Blith, or Bronn.” Tem smiled as he shouldered his pack.
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