Chapter One: Adoption Papers
In a remote corner of Pog, on the north most front of the Malakar Kingdom, intrepid travelers could find the wee village of Westfall if they ever bothered to look. It was a strange name for a village, being neither west of anything of significance, nor possessing a single waterfall within its quaint borders. More likely the village was named after a farmer who took one too many a fall on his head, always landing in the direction of the setting sun.
The goodly folk of Westfall were a simple bunch. Not that they were stupid, for they possessed much knowledge to speak of, chiefly being that they were absolute experts in the art of onion farming. In fact, though most citizens of Malakar could hardly tell you where Westfall was, its farmers produced the entire crop of onions used from corner to corner of their fair kingdom. Not only that, but Westfall farmers were masters in the art of pickling. From eggs to onions, a Westfaller could and would pickle anything they got their hands on. It was once said Farmer Jessup even tried pickling her cat after it passed away, though it was generally agreed a good taxidermist would have saved her a deal of trouble, as well as several barrels of vinegar.
But it wasn’t just pickles and onions that were raised in the village of Westfall, or this story would have no roots, though that might well be a good thing in retrospect. Besides the staple crop that kept Westfall going, there were also a variety of other commodities: corn, wheat, beets, potatoes, cows, pigs, and even goats, just to name a few. It was a fairly self-contained village, troubling itself little with the outside world. The kingdom had changed hands three times since Westfall’s founding, and its people had hardly noticed.
If there was anything the villagers needed or wanted, they had it aplenty, either in their village or a simple hop, skip, and trade away in the nearby town of Duggenfel.
Blue-bellied yak milk was an excellent example of the former camp—not a need per se, but a deeply embedded craving that dwelled inside the hearts and bellies of every respectable Westfaller. They loved a good cup of yak milk early in the morning, nice and warm from the pantry, tangy on the tongue and spicy on the way out. It was just the right blend of flavors to lift the spirits before a long day working the fields.
However, only one farm in the entire village raised blue-bellied yaks, and that was Billy O’Finly’s place. Everyone in Westfall knew Billy was a right fool with an unyielding itch to play the cards. Unlike most Westfallers, Billy was an outsider who moved to their humble village to run from a gambling debt he’d racked up in Vole City. While one might see this as regretful, a terrible situation with no good end, Billy turned out to be just as fortunate as he was stupid. He arrived just in time to inherit his father’s wife’s cousin’s yak farm. Most farmers shook their heads at this, but kept their condemnations to themselves.
Because of the high demand for yak’s milk and Billy’s newfound monopoly on the sticky sweet nectar, he soon found life in Westfall a thoroughly pleasant experience. The problem for a gambling addict, though, is that the easier things become, the higher they need the stakes to be. So before the dust settled he was back at it, gambling in Duggenfel and more often than not losing his shirt because...well, Billy really sucked at playing cards.
So when Billy’s yaks started going missing, no one could blame the villagers for assuming he had lost them betting in the backroom of the Greedy Goblin. And no matter how much Billy O’Finly went on about another of his livestock disappearing in the middle of the night, no one paid him any heed.
Until one evening when Gordy Vance finished a heaping plate of stewed onions with braised beef, all drizzled in a honey balsamic reduction. It was his favorite dish, one his loving wife Magatha had prepared in celebration of their most recent bountiful crop. It was a matter of tradition for Gordy that whenever he finished such an amazing meal, he would go for a nice long stroll. Most times Magatha would join him, but that evening she slipped into a cozy food coma, nestled up on the sofa. So Gordy found himself alone in his evening stroll, his mind wandering to thoughts of soil structures and pH balances, when he came into the village center. Unlike the rest of Westfall, the buildings there were nestled a bit closer together, stone structures with thatched rooftops that played double duty as homes and storefronts. Gordy whistled a light tune as he walked up the dirt road past Nigel’s Bakery, the blacksmith’s, and Jasper’s Common Goods.
He paused in front of Billy’s place, on the edge of the village center proper, to admire the big wooly yaks, their heads bowed as they slept standing, bushy tails swaying gently. Gordy licked his lips at the thought of some yak milk after such a fine meal. Perhaps he would help himself to a glass when he got back to the house.
Something across the fenced-in yard caught his attention. Gordy gasped as his eyes landed on the true culprit behind Billy’s claims. He was not sure when exactly he first opened his mouth, nor whether it was because of the thief’s appearance or the sudden realization that Billy had actually been telling the truth for once, but there he stood all the same, screaming his brains out. As soon as he began to hoot and holler at the top of his lungs, sounding like some deranged parakeet had lodged itself in his throat, curtains were thrust aside and farmers ran out of their houses all around the village to see what was the matter. But not before the yak thief slunk off into the woods behind Billy’s farm.
“Good god Gordy, you look like you been scared three shades to Wednesday. What was it you saw?” Finnigin, who was first on the scene, prodded the pale-faced Gordy. Half the village huddled around him, lanterns, pitchforks, and shovels in hand, eager to find out what all the fuss was about.
Gordy pointed a trembling finger at Billy’s yaks, but the words seemed to stick in his throat.
“Was it a wolf?” one of the farmers asked.
Gordy took a deep swallow and shook his head. “W-what I saw was n-no wolf,” he said. “’Twas taller than a man and dark as nightfall.”
“Did it walk on two legs or four?” Finnigin asked skeptically.
“Yes,” Gordy said, staring off toward the woods.
“Well, which was it?”
“It was on two legs when it reached over the fence and snatched the yak, those arms…so long…” Gordy pointed the direction the thing had gone, a copse of dense trees that hugged the fence. “Then it dropped to all fours and took off into the woods fast as a mountain lion. Had the yak lodged in its jaws.”
Finnigin mumbled to himself, trying to make sense of Gordy’s strange account. Suddenly a shrewd smile spread over his face and he snapped his fingers. “Ah, sounds like we got ourselves a bear, fellas!”
Finnigin was an odd duck. Though he was on the wiry side with a crooked swagger and brownish teeth, most folk around Westfall tended to show him respect. The old coot reckoned himself a hunter, and more than half the village was obliged to believe it. When he was only twelve, he managed to catch a fox that had been stealing Old Lady Abbott’s custard pies. No one knew quite how Finnigin managed to track such a cunning beast, but ever since then he’d had the honorary title of village hunter. So if he said it was a bear Gordy saw, no one thought twice about disagreeing.
The villagers got properly frightened and distraught by the dreadful news of a bear in their midst, with a fair amount of “What do we do?” and “Ain’t never seen no bear ‘round these parts,” and even one ill-informed, “Hide the honey jars!”
“There ain’t going to be no dumb bear ruining my village,” Finnigin barked. Everyone fell silent and watched him. “To arms, lads! This be war. Survival of the fittest and all that! Let’s go get the filthy beast!”
The farmers were quick to join in, with all the huzzahs and grunting they could muster.
In the blink of an eye, a whole mob of pitchforks and bobbing lanterns entered the woods skirting the village. Finnigin led the way, pointing out snapped branches and large footprints as they went.
“Ye sure that’s a bear track?” Farmer Jessup asked, eyeing the prints. They were wide and squat with long tapered points to the toes. “The toes look awfully sharp.”
“’Course they are,” Finnigin snapped. “Geez, Jessup, don’t ye know a bear’s paw has claws on it?”
Jessup opened her mouth to respond indignantly but then realized that as a matter of fact she knew very little about bears. And with that, they set off again, and everyone thought better than to question Finnigin’s expertise.
They traveled for two hours through the woods, moving in wide circular patterns that Finnigin claimed were normal for a bear. Gordy had a nagging suspicion the hunter was lost.
Finally, just as the sun began to peek its golden crown over the horizon and the weight of a sleepless night pulled on Gordy’s eyes, they stumbled upon a cave. A large stone overhang marked the ominous opening amid the bramble and old trees. Finnigin raised a hand for the group to stop.
“What do you make of that?” Gordy whispered.
“It’s a bloody cave, innit? Even a half a hammer like yerself must see that?”
Gordy bit his tongue on the first response that came to mind. “I can see that clear enough. But what’s it doing out here? Have you ever come across this cave before?” It was a rational question, since Finnigin was oft to be found wandering the forest.
Finnigin gestured to the rocky hillside that the cave stuck out from. “The slopes on this end are riddled with ‘em. Whole mess of old mines.”
Gordy scrunched up his nose. “They were mining hills?”
“Whole lot of stupid ran through their blood,” Finnigin said with a curt nod. He motioned for the group to move again.
A foul odor wafted from the bowels of the cave, and as they huddled around the entrance, they could hear sounds of either growling or snoring coming from inside.
Finnigin motioned for everyone to halt once more and waved for all of them to get their weapons ready. “Me and Gordy will slip inside,” he whispered. “We’ll surprise the bear and get it to chase us outside. Then, wham, y’all ambush the yak thief.” He chuckled to himself. “We’ll be swimming in bear meat for the next month.”
Heads were nodded and grunts given.
Finnigin entered the cave with Gordy at his side, both of them creeping quiet as school mice. It was hard to adjust to the suffocating shadows of the cave. Gordy lingered by the entrance, one hand feeling the damp wall to his right for support while the other gripped a rusty dirk. Finnigin quickly broke away from him, heading deeper inside, and craned his neck to look around the cave. As Gordy’s eyes slowly adjusted, he was able to make out the general area. The cave was wider than it appeared from the outside, with hazy grey walls and a low ceiling covered in jagged stalactites. Dripping water echoed through the hollow chamber from somewhere unseen.
Finnigin waved for Gordy to follow as he stepped into the wider chamber. Gordy could see the white of the hunter’s knuckles, both his hands wrapped around a sturdy club. He looked down at his rusty dirk and suddenly felt grossly inadequate. The floor of the cave was sticky in dark splotches and a stench clung to the air that made him want to gag, but he fought the urge and pressed in farther.
Something stirred in the far corner, a shuffle of black and green. Gordy stifled a squeak, earning a dark look from Finnigin. He pointed at the strange shape, and Finnigin turned toward it, steadying his club. He stayed like that for a moment, as if building up the courage to step forward.
Gordy felt the dirk slipping in his sweaty palms as he tried to summon up the same bravado. He wished his hands would stop shaking, inhaled deeply, and took a long striding step forward to back up Finnigin. Too long. His foot came down on something slick, twisting his ankle and pulling his groin. He spilled quite unceremoniously to the ground. The wooden handle of his dirk clattered against the hard floor of the cave loud as church bells.
The sound of snoring stopped.
Gordy winced and bit his lower lip to keep from crying out. Every muscle in his body froze. The shape in the corner shifted. Finnigin stepped back, holding his club up high like a batter ready to swing in the onion tournament. The dark shape suddenly stretched out, and Gordy realized with a whimper that it was not getting longer but standing…on two legs!
“That’s no bear,” he gasped.