It wasn't long as they wandered down the snowy trail before the little group of six felt a bit as though they might be lost. They'd only once traveled this way before, and it was far from the beat and path of most townsfolk from Hamfest. They hastily made their way. Storm Pig flew around in circles above the party searching out the way as best he could, and keeping a lookout for wolves. The little band trundled along through the snow, hoping they were going the right way as they left Old Biddy Mable behind, sobbing, the poor dear.
They came after a time, somewhere about midday I should say, to a spot where they could see, they felt sure, a small foot path branching off from the one they were on, heading upward into the hills. It struck them as strange since they were on the edge of known civilization as it was. So why a trail should head further East was something of a mystery, and they decided to follow it. The winds began to bluster and the snow was thickly falling, making it hard to see. Morgana pulled her coat around her and trundled along bleakly, as did Ben. The two brothers, Brian and Daniel seemed not to mind the snow or cold at all, but just marched ever forward, stalwarts that they were. Juliette kept a close eye on Storm Pig, making sure he didn't fly too far away before calling him back. For his part, Storm Pig was having the time of his life, never having been able to fly before.
They came to a narrow defile that lead into a wide path between two cliffs. The cliffs climbed overhead up to thirty feet or so, and the path between them was about twenty feet wide and sloping downward. On the right they could see a stone trail crawling along the edge of the cliff upward toward the top, and out of sight. It almost seemed as though that trail was made of rough hew stairs, though small ones, and difficult to make out in the snow.
"What should we do, Storm Pig? Shall we see what is in the cave, or go up the trail and see what is there?" asked Juliette.
"Oink", said he.
And so when they came to the cliffs Storm Pig flew up along the right side trail to see what he could see, and lo, when he flew within range of the cliff he could see the mouth of a cave at the top of the stony path. And looking downward he could see the party making their way along that path toward the cave, Brian leading, and Ben following up in the rear. It was difficult going as the stones were slippery and covered with a dusting of snow and in places slick with ice.
The weather was colder and meaner up in these cliff-hewn hills, and things began to get dangerous for Storm Pig, who was not a well seasoned flyer, of course. And so he decided to be safe and fly back to the base of the trail and follow the band to the top by hoof. That was much harder to do than he imagined at first, but with the occasional shove from the rear he was able to make his way. As Brian reached the opening of the cave, he peered inside. It was a wide low cave about twenty feet in diameter and roughly circular. The opening had a low wall of wood set in front of it, as if to shield the cave from inclement weather. From the entrance a commanding view was had of the trail below, and from there he could see that the narrow defile opened into a wide flat gulch, surrounded by high cliff walls. The trail continued through the center of the open area and then entered a corridor between two cliffs on the far side. Daniel lit a torch with a flint and steel, and they found the cave quite empty, except for the odd wood piles, and on the ground strange little tracks. They looked like the footprints of people, but really quite a bit smaller than normal. Perhaps the size of a thumb. There were many of those, and one set of tracks that were normal sized. And other than these things, the cave was empty, except for spiders in their webs.
And so they left the cave and wend their way down the cliff-side trail, and came to the bottom and determined to head into the ravine to see what might be beyond the cave along the trail. And so they entered the open gulch below the cave, and from above they heard a musical sound, like singing. Looking up they spied a little man with a bow in his hand, silvery blue eyes, and a mocking smile on his lips as he chanted some sing-song in a strange language from the dark mouth of the cave. Next to him appeared another little man, who as soon as he was seen, burst out with a cackling laughter that echoed far and wide among the cliffs, far then near, then far away again, and then gone. They were both dressed in hats that looked like puffs of birds feathers, with vests of moss and twigs, and one would have never have noticed them had they stood still next to a log for but a moment. Putting a blue feathered arrow to knock in his bow, the little man shot it at Brian, who fell to the ground with a cry. Having only seen a blue flash out of the corner of an eye, Juliette ran over and found Brian lying on his side, one half of his leg frozen over from the blue hazy light that had struck him. No one could say for sure what had happened, least of all Brian. But Storm Pig and Juliette ascertained that this little man, and his mocking friend who sat laughing beside him, had magic spells in their possession, and that their little arrows were the vehicle of their casting. And that made them very dangerous indeed.
Juliette wasted no time pulling out the healing dirt she had in her pouch, and with a prayer to Minvar, rubbed the dirt onto Brian's frozen leg. Within a few minutes it seemed to warm, and thaw, and blood returned to circulation there, and he felt much better, thanks be to Minvar.
Meanwhile, above and behind them the little men began to laugh and chant anew. Juliette threw her hands up in supplication and did her best to convince the little men that they meant no harm to them, but were just curiously passing through on an errand of exploration. The little men seemed to pause for a moment, and then burst out laughing again, and the other again picked up his chanting. At this Storm Pig, Juliette, and the rest of the party made a hasty retreat out of the area back along the cliff bottom and out of the narrow defile. Looking back they saw no immediate pursuit, and so they heaved a sigh of relief. And turning around they were about to exit the defile completely and head home when they noticed a nook in the rock shaped like a little archway, and on a stone in the middle there sat a small loaf of freshly baked bread. Storm Pig sniffed it. It smelled good. He would be happy to eat it, but Juliette argued him out of it. It was, in fact, just at this time that Storm Pig, who you will recall was recently a boy, in his slow evolution back to boyhood, re-found his voice and found that he could talk again. She reasoned that perhaps it was an offering to some local deity of the 'Little Ones', which is what she named the little men. But because Storm Pig was curious about it, and suspected it might be poison, Juliette agreed, reluctantly, to satisfy Storm Pig's curiosity, and took the bread.
They'd not gone more than five feet from the spot when they heard from behind a strange series of yelping sounds, and looking back they saw the two Little Ones stamping their feet, and waving bow and stick at Juliette and Storm Pig. At that moment a large hawk landed next to the Little Ones and the one with the bow leaped on his back and they took off into the air with a great and mighty 'Screeee'. Juliette realized that she'd very probably offended the Little Ones in taking their offering, and so she threw it up into the air at the black hawk as it came screaming down through the air toward her, his blue frosty eyes shimmering, and the Little One's arrow pointing directly at her. The bread, because of her good toss, landed right in the talons of the black hawk, and the Little One pulled his arrow up and did not shoot it. Away flew the hawk with his rider, the bread held firmly beneath him as he vanished into the snow shrouded sky.
The party headed back down the trail the way they came, having had enough of the little canyon, and wanting to get home to Hamfest before it got dark. The problem was that they didn't know quite where they were. And so they were lost, and took the wrong turn when they got to the fork in the road, and headed off further northwest toward the unknown lands instead of homeward.
Eventually the trail came to a wood in the hills. The wood was was not very thick and the path went through it. It began to snow in earnest. After some time they found themselves walking through a dark and somber forest of old oaks, birch and hazel. Up ahead around a bend they heard, faintly at first, and then stronger as they approached, the sound of music. Of piping and fiddles and song and laughter. And so they trundled more quickly through the snow and came at last to an inn in the forest, with a large sign over the door that read "Green Dragon Inn".
When they opened the large wooden door to enter, the entire place went from noisy and boisterous into a complete and total silence. Everyone was staring at the strangers who stood in the door way, snow blustering around them from the outside. Silence. After an awkward pause Juliette decided to look at her feet.
"Well, well, don't just stand in the door way letting the cold in, come in, come in!" shouted a man with a great handlebar mustache from the bar.
"Thank you," said Storm Pig.
... "A talking pig with wings," said someone, breaking the silence again. Everyone was staring at the most peculiar pig ever in the whole wide world thus far: Storm Pig.
"And a tuft of red hair, too," said a woman.
"Well I'll be hog tied fer a dango... Dunna see ... that ... every day... no sir..."
"Nope," said another. "Sure don't."
As everyone gawked, the enchanting hostess in a red and orange dress, and luxurious red hair, whose name by the way was Lucia, made her way over to the newly arrived guests, and bid them to follow her to a seat at a large round wooden table, where a waiter eagerly greeted them and took their orders. Hot Sassafras and Apple cider for the Minvarian Clerics, Morgana, Juliette and Ben. Daniel and Brian both ordered large plates of mutton, and Ben ordered a plate of cheese. And Acorn Beer, for the talking pig. The feast was on, and the music began again, and there was a great deal of merriment.
At one point the bar again grew quiet. It seemed that one musician who had been drinking quite a lot and dancing about playing his fiddle like a mad man was in an argument with the bar tender over the matter of payment. He was new in the place, and very sorry to say that he had left his money in his cabin and declared he'd be happy to go get it and return within the hour. But the bar tender didn't know him and so it was agreed that the fellow would leave behind his fiddle, a prize possession he assured the bar tender. And Juliette spoke up and said she thought that was fair. And so the bartender, feeling kindly toward Juliette, and not wishing to offend the young beauty, agreed, and the fiddler thanked Juliette her and begged her to hold on to it for him.
"But of course, I can tell right away that you're the trust worthy sort," he said cheerfully. "But Should I not return in the hour then you may give the bartender my fiddle," he said, and then ran out the door and down the forest path.
Everyone went back to feasting and merry making. The cinnamon in the tea was just the right touch, and the food superlative. It was round that time that Juliette recalled Old Biddy Mable, and looked around to see if she could spot a cat for her. She asked the bar tender, and he said there was a cat at the Inn but it wasn't his. It belonged to the hostess, Lucia. And so Juliette asked her of the cat, and was told that the cat was not for sale, but there might be some chance of her finding a substitute among her cat's progeny. She placed a bowl of milk on the counter, and made a purring whistle and within a moment the most magnificent cat appeared on the window sill, dappled with snow. The cat was larger than usual, jet black with great big orange eyes that seemed almost to burn like embers. Onto the counter the cat leaped, and without further ado began to lap at the milk swaying his tail to the music. He looked then at Storm Pig, noticing him for the first time. He leaped down and made a graceful path to the oddly winged pig with the tuft of red hair. Leaping onto his back he sat down and began to purr. What a picture they made. And everyone agreed that none of them had ever seen a talking pig with wings and red hair with a black cat and orange eyes purring happily on its' back in all their days.
The cat whispered into Storm Pig's ear, giving him quite a shock.
"Hello, and good day," said the cat, and leaping gingerly back to the counter he sipped his milk, and without a nod to anyone leaped to the window sill, and out into the snow. And he was gone.
Over to the table came a man who sat down next to Juliette, introducing himself as Mr. Montague. He wished to know who the ravishing Morgana was, and with a great bow and flattering words, made her giggle and titter to everyone's amusement. He then noticed the fiddle on the table that Juliette was holding.
"That fiddle! It's very old!" he said.
"It is?" asked Juliette.
"Why I'm almost certain... might I look at it?" he inquired.
"Well, no, it's not mine," she said firmly.
"I see, well would you mind turning it around for a moment so that I might see the other side?" he asked.
"Certainly," and so she did.
"Why that's what I thought! This is a classic fiddle! It's worth a thousand gold pieces if anything! I'd stake my reputation on that," he said in a quiet hush to her, looking around furtively in every direction.
"I will give you a thousand gold for it if you sell it to me right now, no questions asked," he said. But Juliette insisted it was not hers to sell. And so Mr. Montegue politely excused himself from the table, and went back into the crowd, rebuffed, and looking not a little bit peeved, too.
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