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The Stuttering Bard of York

Chapter One: Inauspicious Inauguration

The bird pooped on him when he was out plowing the north field. His Ma always told him to make the best of a situation, and to remember it could be worse. So Ben laughed.

“It could be worse,” he told his plow horse, Ned. “We could be attacked by Goblins and the farm burned down.”

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Ben wouldn’t have said that, and he wouldn’t have laughed, if he had known. The villagers of York were a superstitious lot, and just about anyone could have told him having your adventure inaugurated with bird poop was a very bad omen. But Ben didn’t know that. And he didn’t know he was about to begin an adventure. So he laughed, and wiped the poop off his forehead with his sleeve because he had forgotten his handkerchief, as usual.

Later, when he reflected on all this, he would wonder if the adventure was all his fault. At the moment the bird pooped on him he had been daydreaming about adventure, even though his father had warned him to stop. “Adventure is highly over-rated,” his Da had said. “It’s like investing. You spend a lot of time and money, and the returns aren’t worth it. Even worse, the adventure jumps out on you like some monster from under the bed, and then you find out you got the wrong adventure.”

But Ben thought it would be exciting to venture into the nearby Shiddow Mountains and fight goblins-maybe. He could be a warrior-bard, he thought. He wasn’t entirely sure what being a bard meant, but he liked to sing. From what he read it seemed being a bard was singing, telling stories, and seeing amazing things while traveling. He thought he might like that, but he didn’t tell anyone. He knew if Stuttering Ben said he wanted to be a bard people wouldn’t stop laughing for a week. So he told only Ned the plow horse, who was the audience for most of his songs anyhow.

“Spring wind on the air, oh spring wind on the air,” he sang, and then couldn’t think of what to sing next, so he just sang that bit over again, louder, and a little off-key.

Ned didn’t mind.

A new line came to him and Ben was about to bellow the stanza when he saw the smoke. The dark pillar climbed from the horizon, boiling upward through the clear sky.

“Whoa, Ned,” he croaked. “As the king lives . . .”

The smoke came from somewhere beyond the rim of the stone field wall. From . . . from the direction of the house. Ben felt his stomach do a very odd flip.

“Not to worry, Ned.” He tried to laugh, but only croaked again. “Not a goblin raid. It’s just the smoke-house. Da probably added more chips to the fire for the curing meat. It’s acting up, like it did last week.”

But then he knew it wasn’t. He wished he hadn’t said anything about goblin raiding.

“Chimney fire,” he muttered.

No small chimney fire made that much smoke. A house fire.

“Can’t be. It’s just the barn.”

He left the plow, starting across the field. Then he ran.

♦ ♦ ♦

Fire. Ben saw it as soon as he came over the rise. Flames shot out of the windows, wild and hungry, black smoke frothing up from the roof. The beautiful little house his own Da had built.

“Ma! Da!” he shouted, and ran faster.

He cleared the wooden gate in one leap and crossed the yard. Only then did he see the dead goblin lying in the middle of the rutted wagon path.

Goblins are short little things, about half as tall as a man, sometimes a little taller, and very strong. They’re blackish, hairy brutes, commonly with a massive bulbous nose and large crooked teeth that stick out from their mouths at every angle. They can fight with their long pointed claws, but they often carry spiked clubs or whatever sharpened metal things the fiendish goblin smiths hammer out. The vile creatures live up in the Shiddow Mountains, in dark, dank caves. They love gold and other shiny things, and fire, and eat only raw meat. They cackle, shriek and screech when excited-which is usually when plundering and killing humans.

Ben had never seen a goblin before, only imagined them, so when he saw the lumpish rounded shape sprawled on the road he nearly screamed-and almost swallowed his tongue in his fright, making the scream come out more a gurgle.

Once he realized the goblin was indeed quite dead-with a long feathered arrow planted between its beady eyes-his fear subsided a little. But only a little. Where there was one goblin there were always more, and though one of his father’s arrows had killed this goblin, there was no sign of his father.

“Da! Ma! Where are you?”

He snatched up the wood ax from where it rested, embedded in the splitting stump. Teeth bared in what he hoped looked like a ferocious grimace, he raced round the burning house, frantic enough to attack even the greatest goblin warrior living if it happened to appear around the next corner with his parents.

The greatest goblin living didn’t appear. Neither did his Ma or Da. Nobody living appeared anywhere, though he found two more dead goblins on the far side of the house, each with a well-placed arrow that said his father had struck again.

“Come out! Come out! It’s me, Ben!” He whirled round, his eyes darting, searching. His father was quite lame, and his mother had never been one for much running. He knew they both had to be nearby.

They had to be in the house.

“I’m coming!” he shouted, racing around to the front of the house.

He smashed through the door, splintering it to pieces, stumbling inside. Smoke darkened the room and filled his nostrils, stinging his throat. Peering through the smoke and flames he could just make out the overturned kitchen table and many broken chairs.

“Da! Ma! I know you’re in here, somewhere!” He squinted, preparing to charge madly through the house. Then a burning chunk of ceiling crashed down on his head, knocking him cross-eyed and sending hot coals down the back of his shirt.

He yelped, staggering backward out of the house. Dropping the ax, he danced around shouting and shaking his shirt. As soon as the last burning embers were dislodged he turned back to enter the house again. Halfway to the door, the entire structure caved in with a groan and a roaring crash. Sparks swirled everywhere and a blast of hot air struck Ben in the face, making his eyes water.

Where the house had once stood there remained only a burning heap of ruins.

“But . . .” He reached out a hand. “But . . . I was going back!” he shouted.

“What for?” a voice said. “Weren’t no point in going back, less you wanted to be burned up.”

“What?” He turned, staring stupidly at his father, wondering if the blow to his head had addled his senses. His parents, having come from hiding in the bramble across the road, appeared sooty and disheveled but otherwise unharmed.

“Not dead?” he finally said.

“Nope.” Abern drew his scrawny self up proudly, sticking out his hairy chin. “I look dead to you, boy? Take more than some filthy goblins to kill me.”

“But . . . but . . . The house-”

“Not a concern. Everything is under control.” Abern leaned on his bow and raised his free hand in a grand gesture. “No need for panic, no need for alarm. Your old Da can handle anything.”

“The house-” Ben stuttered again.

“Yeah, well . . . I did burn down the house.” Abern looked a bit reflective as he turned his gaze to the smoldering ruins.

“You . . . you . . . Burned down-”

“Tactical maneuver, see.” Abern fingered his bow, a gleam coming into his eyes. “I saw the goblins coming, so I burned down the house. A most cunning distraction so we could get away. Besides,” he finished, “I figured if it were going to be burned down in any case, I ought to get the satisfaction instead of them. Nothing quite so fun as watching a house burn down.”

“But . . . but . . . that was our house,” Ben managed.

“Yeah . . . yeah. True.” Abern frowned. “You questioning me, boy? Think your Da don’t know best? It was either the goblins burning the house down, or me. Who should it be burning down this house besides the master of the house? It were the goblins or me, and I chose me!”

“I . . . liked our house.”

“You can build us a new one short enough.” Abern said absently, looking around. “Where Ned gone off to? I thought you were working him in the field.”

“I am. Was. I saw the smoke-”

“And you left the horse in the field to get ate by passing goblins? Your common sense desert you entirely today? First you go carrying on because you can’t go back into a burning house, then you leave our only dear horse out in the field when goblins might decide to eat him. We can build a house, we can’t build a horse!”

“But-”

“Fetch Ned quick like. We’re going to have a council of war to devise our revenge on these goblins. It’s part of the grand old traditions.”

“Right.” He wanted to ask him what a council of war was, but instead he hurried back to the field, his mind whirling.

“Sorry, Ned,” he said, breathing hard as he removed the harness. “Wish we could keep plowing, but Da says we’re holding a council of war, or something like that. House has been burned down, too, but at least you still have your barn.”

Ned seemed untroubled by the news and agreeably followed Ben.

“Good to see you all here. Glad you’re still in one piece, Ned.” Abern cleared his throat importantly and motioned for them to collect in a circle. “Now see here everyone, and pay close attention. We’re holding a council of war to decide how we’re going to pay those goblins back for burning down our house.”

“But,” Ben interjected, “I thought you burned the house down.”

“You going to interrupt all the time? I did because they were gonna, and that’s just as good as them doing it, got it? So those goblins did it, and we’re gonna to make them pay. Keep that straight.”

“Oh.” Ben looked at his mother. Jemima Transom was nearly as stout as her husband was scrawny, and calm as Abern excitable. Ben usually understood his mother’s explanations better than whatever his father offered, but now she said nothing, studying the ruins of their house as if they held the answer to their present circumstance.

“How we going to make them pay?” Ben finally asked.

“Hang them goblins up by their nose hairs.” Abern rubbed his hands together in gleeful anticipation. “King’s name, we’ll choke them on their own nose hairs. That’ll teach them to mess with old Abern.”

“No,” Jemima said, finally breaking her silence.

“No what?” Abern stopped rubbing his hands together. “You going to tell me it isn’t cleanly, or something? You’re always saying I’m doing uncleanly things.”

Jemima shook her head. “There are many goblins and only the three of us. If we’re going to fight the goblins we need help.”

“We don’t need help.” Abern jutted out his chin. “We can beat thousands and thousands of goblins. We just got to fight tactically. Sneaking, and ambushing, and stuff like that. Everybody knows you always win when-”

“That’s not how it went in the last war, and you know that, Abern. If we’re going to attack those goblins, we need-”

“We don’t need nobody,” Abern insisted vehemently. “We here in this family are survivalists! We take care of ourselves and don’t need anyone poking in our business.”

“I won’t have my Ben wasting the flower of his youth because you’re too proud and ornery, Abern Transom.” Jemima waved a firm finger under his nose. “Survivalist, or socialist, or whatever your religion, sometimes everyone needs help. We aren’t starting a war with the goblins by ourselves.”

“Next you’ll be saying we need the capitalists in on this venture, too,” Abern grumbled. “Since when has warfare become an inclusive activity? It weren’t that way when I was young. I say we can start a war by ourselves. I say we put this to a vote. All in favor of an immediate assault on the goblin strongholds raise your hand and say ‘Aye.’”

Abern’s hand shot up. “Aye!”

“But why-” Ben said.

“Right, then,” Abern continued without a pause. “Now that we’ve decided on a course of action-”

“We’re not going anywhere without an army,” Jemima repeated. “Ben-”

“Ben ain’t got no flour of youth.” Abern glared. “Us men are made of meat and salt and all sorts of hardy good-tasting stuff. And we’re going to nip on up to the Shiddow Mountains quick-like and smack up these nasty goblins. Setting wickedness to right, we’ll come back and build a new house. It’s all going to be simple as that because I’m getting too old for complications.”

“And how are you going to do that?” Jemima rested her hands on her hips. “We lost all our food when the house burned up. You planning to kill all the goblins without eating lunch? And what about a clean pair of socks?”

“Lunch.” Abern sat on the edge of the stone wall that bordered the field. “Don’t have any lunch. Take a woman to remember something important like that.” Abern looked glum. “I could do without the socks, but I’m hungry for lunch already and we haven’t even had our second battle. We should have thought to pull dinner out with us, when we escaped the goblins . . .”

“But we didn’t,” Jemima said, reasonably. “And we need a good number of armed men to take care of the goblins properly, anyhow.”

“So what are you suggesting this council of war do?” Abern rested his bow across his knees.

“We go into town and-”

“No.” Abern turned his head away. “I’m not going into town where that fool Andro-piddle-”

“Androbobel,” Jemima corrected. “And he’s a learned professor.”

“Don’t care what he calls himself.” Abern folded his arms petulantly. “I told him the next time I saw his smart mouth I was shooting one of my arrows up his back end, and I meant it. I don’t intend to go to York and have him telling me how I ought to have fought the goblins. Likely as not he’ll go telling me I shouldn’t have burned down my house.”

“We need-” Jemima persisted.

“Nope.” Abern shook his head. “You want your great big army, you send Ben. There ain’t no retreat for me. I’m a patriotic defender of this farm. If those gibbering goblins come back, I’ll give them something to gibber about.”

Jemima seemed about to say something, then stopped. Ben thought she was remembering when Adrobobel first came to York, claiming to be a professor and learned man from a great university in the neighboring country. He had proclaimed his mission consisted in the humane and sublime task of bringing enlightenment and social advancement to the masses. Ben had no idea what the professor went on about, but his Da had taken an immediate dislike to Adrobobel and his “airy words,” and the relationship had only become worse since. The last time into town ended in a nasty fight where the accusation of “narrow-minded impediment to knowledge and social inclusiveness” was hurled from one side, and “pea-brained babble-talker,” on the other.

After a few minutes, Jemima nodded. “Yes,” she said. “It’s best if Ben goes alone.”

“Me?” Ben squeaked, his voice reaching an unnatural octave. “Alone?”

“You heard your Da. He’s not coming, and he’s probably right not to, given how he and Androbobel can’t be civil.”

“Can’t you come with me?”

“Best if I stay with your Da. Make sure he don’t go off and get ideas.” Jemima eyed Abern, who was muttering dire predictions should Andro-piddle or any goblin cross him again.

“But-but-but-”

“You’ve said enough buts for today, Ben dear. Now listen and do as you’re told,” Jemima reached up and straightened Ben’s collar with finality. “You’ve gone and grown up on me, and now it’s time you go and act like a grown man.”

“But-but-but, will you be safe?”

“Safe? Ha! Those goblins better worry about themselves if they come back,” Abern barked. “You think you’re father can’t handle them? You think your Da can’t keep your Ma safe?”

“No,” Ben said quickly. “It’s just-”

“Ben, think of this as a little adventure. You’ve always wanted to go on an adventure, right?” Jemima laid a hand on Ben’s arm. “Pay no attention to your Da. The goblins have just got him a little excited. Just go to York and tell the mayor what has happened. He’ll know what you need to do. Follow the mayor’s instruction, and you’ll do fine.”

“Yes, Ma.”

“But don’t listen to that intellectual tramp,” Abern broke in. “You can’t trust that big-worded fool. He’s up to no good.”

Pursing her lips, Jemima finally nodded. “Best if you kept away from the professor, Ben dear. Less said to him the better. The man seems very wise and all, but he does have some strange ideas, and I don’t think he’s taken to you.”

“Can’t abide all those social experiments,” Abern said darkly. “You get all these foreign intellectual types coming over here thinking they know best. Ruining the fabric of decent society-and good clothing too, I expect. Spreading all sorts of foolishness, like telling me my Ma don’t know how to cook food right. It isn’t right, I tell you.”

“No, Pa,” Ben agreed quickly.

“No, sir,” Abern said, warming up to his subject. “Don’t trust them. Never know where all this talk of setting up a demo-thing-a-jiggy might lead. Sing the national anthem all the way, I say.” He twanged the string of his bow as if he thought to bring some musical accompaniment to the threatened national anthem. “Sing the national anthem, boy, and shove a sharpened arrow up their-”

“Unfortunately,” Jemima broke in, “We’re in a difficult spot, so we must be polite.”

“Hmph. Polite.” Abern twanged his bowstring a few more times, meaningfully. “If that Andro-babble fellow starts spouting off strange sounding words you just-”

“Ignore him,” Ma finished.

“Defend our heritage from foreign encroachment! Oh Tarn, Tarn, land of the good and the brave!” Abern sang loudly, and off key. “Where justice reigns with beauty over the bold and the brave!”

“Never mind your father,” Ma said briskly. “You know how he gets on.”

“Yeah,” Ben said. He had never seen his Da quite like this. After the last argument with Androbobel-almost, but not quite.

“The goblin attack upset him a bit. You just hurry along to town, Ben, and do whatever they say. Oh . . . and you just might mention to the mayor that it’d be better if Androbobel doesn’t come on out today, understand?”

“Right,” Ben said, glancing toward his father. “Ma, Ned-”

“You take him with you. We won’t be needing him until you get back, and Ned might be useful to you.”

“Maybe,” He agreed, but he thought that all he cared about was not traveling to York alone when goblins were on the loose.

“Go along now.” She reached up to pat him on the shoulder and gave him a gentle shove.

“Come on, Ned.”

Reluctantly, Ben started to walk away. He looked back often, but he always saw the same thing-his mother smiling beatifically after him and his father singing the national anthem at the top of his lungs.

♦ ♦ ♦

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