Twelve Years, Eight Years, Five Years and Four
Spring was doing its best to hurry into summer. The weather was so mild—and Folrolf so completely occupied in a recent project that kept him cooped up in his study—that Titus seized the opportunity of the unusually fair day to go fishing at Rivenstream.
He slipped a package of iced gingerbread into his pocket and armed with a hook, a line, a knife and a large basket for anything he might catch—made his way through Petalmist Forest to the banks of Rivenstream. It was only a twenty minute walk, but by the time he got there, Titus already had sweat slithering down his back.
He kicked off his boots and dipped his dusty feet into the stream, sighing in pleasure as the cool water rippled over his toes. He set his package of gingerbread on a rock nearby to toast in the sun, tied his line around the base of the rock, tossed the hook into the water, and waited.
He watched the line bobbing in the eddies and the steady droning of a bee investigating a nearby daffodil and the steady heat of the sun on his head soon made his eyelids close.
He hadn’t even had time to lean back on the bank and get comfortable when someone kicked him between the shoulder blades and sent him somersaulting into the river.
Titus’s eyes were open in an instant but he could see nothing but green water as he choked in surprised. Everything was swirling reeds and churning silt for several moments and then he thrashed to the surface, snorting water and rubbing his eyes. He jerked backwards in surprise when he found himself nearly nose to nose with a complete stranger.
Crikey! Titus thought. A leprechaun!
It was a boy about Titus’s age, perhaps younger. He had dimples, strikingly gold blond hair, a round flushed face, and the most twinkling, diabolical blue-grey eyes Titus had ever seen. He was squatting like a frog on a knobby rock that grew out of the middle of the river, balancing with his knuckles and toes and weaving slightly from side to side as he grinned madly at Titus.
Not a leprechaun, Titus decided looking him up and down again, a cherub. A pink faced, bright-eyed cherub that had been kicked out of Glory as punishment for some mischievous deed.
“Hullo!” the boy chirped.
“The water’s cold,” Titus responded stonily.
The boy blinked, then suddenly threw himself into the stream with a terrific splash—a great deal of which slapped the astounded Titus in the face.
The boy kicked furiously to the surface, his wet hair on end as he scrambled onto the bank.
“You’re right, it is cold,” he said frankly.
Titus stared at him, bemused, and crawled out of the water to join him on the bank. “What’s your name?” he asked, pulling a lily pad off of his head.
“Jig,” said the boy, grinning, “What’s yours?”
“Titus Bromley,” Titus said guardedly, not really sure what to make of this boy yet. “What’s your last name?”
Titus examined the boy a little more closely. The Totkins lived outside the village; a family so large, they were almost a community—principally known for their wild ways and their weekly brawl at the White Raven. It was rare when they associated with villagers—except to knock their heads together—and even more rare when villagers associated with them. Titus did not view outsiders with as much prejudice as the rest of the village, since he was an outsider himself, but all the same he thought he had better keep his distance.
Jig, still grinning at Titus expectantly, reached into his tunic, removed a squashy package and began to unwrap it. It was a thick wedge of cake, both chocolate and white, with a thick coat of pink frosting. Titus noticed that Jig did not offer him a single bite. Not that he cared much, as he didn’t particularly like birthday cake, but he still didn’t care for this boy’s manners.
Jig caught Titus eyeing the slice of cake and said proudly. “Yesterday was my birthday, I’m thirteen years old.” He looked at Titus, waiting.
“Um . . . Happy birthday,” said Titus.
Jig’s eyes lit up. “You mean it?”
Titus stared at him, perplexed. “What do you mean, did I mean it? All I said was “Happy Birthday.”
“Thanks,” said Jig contentedly, licking his finger and ignoring Titus’s question.
Titus was beginning to feel a trifle irritated. He unwrapped his line from the rock and jiggled it a little, hoping for a quick catch so that he might be able to excuse himself and go home.
He snuck a glance at Jig. The boy was completely absorbed in his cake; perhaps he hadn’t noticed Titus’s basket was empty. If Titus said he already had a catch, he could make his escape right now.
His eagerness was his undoing. Instead of casually reaching over to close the lid, he thrust out a hand and slammed it shut.
Jig stopped chewing and cast him a bemused expression, glancing from the basket to Titus and laughing as he said sarcastically, “Are you afraid the fish will jump out?”
Titus didn’t respond and turned his attention deliberately back to his line.
Without asking, Jig opened the basket and looked inside. “Haven’t caught anything, have you? That’s no wonder; you should be further downstream. There’s a rivulet beyond that bend that runs west through Petalmist and leads into a little pool—you can always catch something there. Are you going to the Spring Festival tonight?”
Titus glared at him. Apparently this was an uncommon variety of idiot. Every villager for miles around would be going to the Spring Festival, short of leaving their death bed. It was like asking someone if they planned on eating breakfast.
“Yes,” he answered testily.
Jig jumped to his feet and dusted off his hands. “Good! I’ll be there too.” And he bounded away in such a distracted state of anticipation; he narrowly avoided knocking his head off on a low-hanging cherry branch. He ducked under it in the nick of time and darted off into the woods.
“See you tonight!” he called over his shoulder, kicking up little clouds of blossoms underneath his feet and humming to himself as he galloped away.
Titus watched him disappear and thought, I hope not. . . .
The sun dipped behind the horizon a little early that day, as if it knew that people were anxious for the evenings activities to begin and it was trying to oblige them.
The clouds were just beginning to darken from pink to purple when Titus made his way to the center of the festival grounds. There were tables everywhere, full of cakes, pastries, pies and puddings, and beverages of every description. There was a veritable town of small booths and gaily decorated tents, all of them soft and shining like colored glass from the lanterns inside that caused them to glow in the twilight. There were peddlers selling whatnots, carvings, pots, haberdashery, and all other manner of useless and thoroughly interesting things.
Titus immediately spent a few coins and slipped a bag of crumpets into his pocket, planning to eat them later as he took a bite of a doughnut he had also purchased. The thick glaze melted instantly on his tongue and he rolled the soft dough around in his mouth, savoring the sweetness.
Something clouted him between his shoulders and Titus choked, spewing half of the doughnut onto the grass. He whirled around, still gagging, and came face to face with a chortling Jig.
“I scared you!” Jig gasped, doubling over with a fresh wave of laughter.
Titus glared at him. He might have known this evening was too good to be true. The chances of enjoying the Spring Festival properly now were slim.
Jig’s eyes dropped to the half-eaten doughnut lying on the grass, and he tittered. Titus gave him a dark look and Jig quickly changed the subject. “Fancy finding you here. What luck!”
Luck, my eye, Titus thought grimly.
Jig bounced on the balls of his feet. “What are you doing?”
“Aren’t you with anyone?” Titus asked bluntly.
Jig’s face screwed up in a peculiar expression. “Well . . . no. . . .” He rubbed one boot on top of the other. “So let’s you and I do something!”
Titus cringed, wondering what sort of excuse he could give when he spied Asa Totkin hurrying past them. Thank goodness; now he can go spend time with his pals.
He was surprised when Jig, looking around to see who Titus was watching, called a friendly “Hello!” and received a stony look from Asa before he moved away.
“Didn’t you come with the Totkins?” Titus asked curiously.
Jig was turning red and he stared after Asa with a mournful expression. He jerked when Titus spoke to him and began whistling a careless little tune as he thrust his hands into his pockets and said very clearly, “No.”
Titus shot him a puzzled look and Jig directed his attention to the tuft of grass he was kicking as he muttered, “They never do anything with me.”
Titus studied Jig’s face and the reason behind the peculiar interchange suddenly returned to his memory. He had heard of Jig before. He was fairly certain that Jig was Jack-By-The-Hedge Carbuncle’s cousin and had been raised by a grandmother, Rachel Sureweaver—which might account somewhat for Asa’s coldness. The Totkins were a tightly knit group, and they thought little of family members that had been raised outside the influence of the clan.
Bits of conversation and gossip flooded back into Titus’s mind. He remembered one wagging tongue had clicked over Jig, proclaimed him as mischievous as the best of the Totkin’s, but lacking in the stalwart constitution of his clan, and even demonstrating a certain propensity of being a “chicken.”
Eyeing the forlorn-looking Jig; it suddenly occurred to Titus that the boy might not have many friends. He might not even have much of a family.
Titus’s rush of sympathy must have shown on his face, for Jig—sneaking a tentative look at his face—suddenly thrust his hair out of his face and said hopefully, “Want to take a look at the swine paddock?”
Titus heard himself reply automatically—and far more congenially then he probably should have. “All right.”
Jig beamed at him and swiveled around, leading the way. Titus followed, wondering how on earth he had gotten himself into such a predicament like being stuck with this annoying person for the rest of the evening.
Jig was in no hurry, and as they wandered leisurely down to the swine paddocks, he began to talk. Titus was beginning to despair that he would ever stop talking, when Loris Goodchild shambled up to them.
Titus liked Loris. And besides, he wanted to get Jig to at least take a breath. He straightened from where he had been leaning against a gate enclosing several prize piglets and said loudly, “Good evening, Loris.”
Jig stopped speaking long enough to greet Loris and Loris returned their hellos with a tip of his hat and a cheerful grin. He hooked his thumbs into his suspenders and nodded over their shoulder into the pen. “What do you think of her?”
Titus glanced down into the pen to gaze at one of the largest pigs he had ever seen. She was enormous. White, clean and bright eyed, and very much resembling a sausage stuffed till its casing seemed liable to burst.
“She’s grand,” Titus said politely, even though he didn’t really like animals of any sort.
“Aye, that she is,” Loris said tenderly, a note of pride creeping into his voice. “I’ve been getting her ready for the size contest all year.”
“Good luck,” said Titus.
“I’m much obliged to you. I’m sure we’ll need it, what with Yarrow Inkberry’s monster being entered. He hasn’t lost the competition for Biggest Pig In The Village for five years in a row.”
“Sweetness is still alive?” Titus asked, and shivered at the thought of that monstrosity. He would have thought he would have eaten herself to death by now. Sweetness’s enormous appetite was only matched by his sizable hatred of all other living things. His foul attitude had made him prone to killing small pets. Titus had comforted more than one child due to Sweetness’s cruelty.
Jig leaned over the pen to scratch Loris’s pig behind the ears. “What’s her name?”
“I like her,” Jig said, admiring the pig from another angle. “I like pigs. I hope you win Loris.” Jig, as usual, had his mouth open about to say something more, but stopped abruptly, emitting an explosive cough as his eyes snagged on something beyond Titus. His face was squashed into the expression of a child who has just been forced to eat something they don’t like. Titus turned to look, and he groaned inwardly. Yarrow Inkberry was strolling towards them with his most commonly worn expression—arrogance.
Nearly everyone in Hedgerose dreaded seeing the Inkberry’s at the Spring Festival—except those few that like to ingratiate themselves for the very reason everyone else despised them. The Inkberry’s always took honors in every event they entered—and people were beginning to wonder if their continual victories were really the result of impartial judging. But the most aggravating thing was that they had no qualms telling everyone about their past successes—incessantly. The people of Hedgerose were taught the Inkberry’s victories in the same way they were drilled in the alphabet. It was a fact of life; just like apples fell from trees, the Inkberries were superior winners, and everyone else was losers.
Yarrow waited until he was close enough to make his small, nasal voice heard—which meant that he had to lean into their personal space. The Inkberry’s had a real fondness for crowding into a person’s personal space. “Old Loris Goodchild! I’m surprised to see you here.”
Titus and Jig traded glances. There was no surprise in Loris being here—Loris was here every year. What Yarrow meant by that was that he was surprised anyone bothered to show up at all, since the Inkberry’s won so many events and contests.
It also wasn’t necessary for Yarrow to dwell so insinuatingly on the word old either. He wasn’t exactly a young sprout himself.
Yarrow looked Loris up and down. “You’ve put on a little weight—haven’t you, Loris? Oh, but it suits you!” He seemed to notice the boys for the first time and cast a thoroughly uninterested eye over them before offering a nod. “Lads.”
Titus nodded back, stiffly. It didn’t surprise him that Yarrow didn’t know their names. Jig scratched his nose and stared back at Yarrow. He, apparently, was not overly concerned with being polite.
Yarrow leaned past Loris with a heavy sigh, as if the effort were too much for him, and glanced into the pin at Clover. “Yours?” he asked Loris, in a manner that suggested he already knew.
“Yes,” said Loris, looking unhappy.
Yarrow shook his head as if Clover were the saddest sight he had ever seen. “What have you been feeding her on, baby carrots?”
Loris bristled and was about to speak and Yarrow raised his hands placatingly. “Oh, no offense. She’s not a bad looker, but that’s not what the judges are looking for—is it?” He crammed his hands into his pocket, located a pipe, and clamped it between his teeth, grinning around it nastily. “Better luck next time, old one,” he drawled. He winked lazily at the boys and swung away with a sharp whistle, ambling away with his hands his pockets in a way that he probably imagined looked lordly.
Titus glanced at Loris. His face was twisted in several expressions it couldn’t decide between. Finally, he heaved a depressed sigh and leaned over the sty to give Clover a consoling pat.
“I hope he didn’t upset her,” he said dolefully, before nodding to the boys and walking away.
“Poor old Loris,” Jig remarked.
Something in the boy’s voice made Titus look at him. Jig’s gaze was snapping like a fire that had just sprung into blaze as he stared after Yarrow’s retreating back.
Titus grabbed his arm: “Don’t you dare.”
“What?” Jig asked, offended, as he tried to shake off Titus’s hand.
“We are not going to sabotage the pig weighing!” Titus said loudly. A man wandered past the barn door paused at the sound of Titus’ strained tone. He peered inquisitively at them over his spectacles.
Titus stretched his mouth into an innocent smile and leaned closer to Jig, whispering through gritted teeth: “You are not going to do anything to Yarrow Inkberry’s pig.”
“Of course,” Jig said loftily, still squirming under Titus’s grasp and pretending like he wasn’t. “You would help me.”
Titus was so stunned by the boy’s cheek, he could only stare. Finally he managed to splutter angrily, “I’m not helping you with anything and I’m not going to let you do anything either. And who asked you to hang around anyway?”
He dropped Jig’s arm and marched away, seething at the Totkin’s audacity. He couldn’t help it; he glanced over his shoulder and realized Jig had been watching him walk away. The boy whipped his head away the moment Titus looked in his direction and pretended to be absorbed in Clover, but Titus saw the dejected slump of his shoulders. Aware that Titus was watching him; Jig scuffed the ground, stuck his hands in his pockets and walked away with his nose in the air.
Titus stuck near the paddocks a while, intending to keep checking on Sweetness and make sure that Jig didn’t come back to sabotage the contest. He glanced at some nearby woodworking displays for a while than finally grew bored, decided Jig wasn’t coming back and abandoned his post.
He wandered for some time about the Festival’s tents, eating his way from one end to the other, until he found himself on the far outskirts of the grounds on a high hillock looking down at a knot of people about fifty yards away.
There was a tiny and well-known duck pond in a shallow valley that had been safely vacated of its feathered residents early that day, and on a low elm hanging far out over the muddy water, someone had rigged up a dunking swing. Seated on the swing was Juniper Inkberry, Yarrow’s only son and, if possible, fatter and more unpleasant than his father.
The game was simple; a small coin bought half a dozen sour apples. The goal was to throw the apples at the target to hit the lever that suspended Juniper over the water. The prize—seeing Juniper Inkberry fall into the water.
Titus was surprised that Juniper would take such a chance with his dignity; he must have known that there were some very good shots in the Village who could de-throne him. After watching him for a few minutes, it was obvious that Juniper was so inflated that night he seemed to believe that he could walk across water, as well as be impervious to anybody’s aim.
Titus amused himself for a moment wondering how on earth they had ever gotten the rotund boy on the swing in the first place and how they would get him off again if he wasn’t knocked out of it by a spectator when suddenly he noticed a very blond boy digging into his pockets and handing coin to the sleepy old judge in charge of the sideshow.
It was Jig.
Jig appeared to be working out some kind of inner aggravation for he threw the first few apples with a startling viciousness. Unfortunately, his intensity couldn’t compensate for his poor aim. The apples ricocheted off of trees, his own foot, and even a ladies umbrella, but all of them fell ignominiously short of the ropes holding Juniper.
Juniper was jeering at Jig as the unfortunate boy tried again and again to strike the rope and each time failed more miserably than the last. His face grew redder as his frustration mounted and he kept handing coins to the judge to arm himself with more apples.
Some of Juniper’s gibes drifted through the crowd to Titus’s ears: “. . . stupid little natter . . . couldn’t hit the broad side of an elephant!”
Titus walking closer as he watched, finally ducked through the knot of observers, tugged Jig’s sleeve, and murmured in his ear. “You’ve wasted too much money on this already, Jig. For goodness sake, just stop.”
“No,” Jig said stonily. “I’m going to drop that ugly caterpillar into the pond if I have to stand here all night.” He flung an apple and it dropped pathetically into the water with a gentle plop a few yards away from the swing.
Juniper was still yelling at them across the water. “ . . . aw the poor little boy’s going to cry now! Lookit, look, look, look! There’s his friend coming to give him a kiss and make it better!”
Furious, Jig snatched up another apple and sent it hurtling after the other. It followed the course of the previous projectiles and fell short. Juniper laughed so hysterically, Titus thought he might make himself sick.
“Blast!” Jig exploded.
The judge jerked and sat up in his chair, blinking in confusion and some annoyance. Jig’s ejaculations had been keeping the judge from an apparently much-needed nap. The judge’s eye fell upon the last apple in front of Jig and he relaxed a little. He seemed about to tell Jig to move along after this final throw, whether he had another coin or not, when Jig closed his fist in an iron grasp over the last apple and threw it with all his might.
The apple arced across the pond, sailed right towards Juniper, and missing the target entirely . . . but it caught the astounded boy right in the forehead and sent him toppling over backwards into the pond.
The cookie Titus had been holding fell from his limp fingers and rolled across the grass. Jig was frozen, with his mouth open wide enough to swallow Juniper whole.
Juniper popped to the surface like a cork, his shrill squeals of rage echoing in the stunned silence around the pond.
The judge exploded from his chair with more energy than he had displayed in years, his spectacles flying. He gapped across the water at the howling Juniper and clutched feebly at his face; as if he weren’t quite sure he could trust what he was seeing and wanted to look through his spectacles to be sure. He turned on Jig.
“Now see here, youngster! You’re supposed to hit the target, not the boy. You shouldn’t deliberately hit someone in the face with an apple no matter what names they’ve been calling you.”
“It was an accident,” Jig gasped, still so stunned at his own success that he couldn’t laugh yet.
“Yes, well . . .” the judge softened a little and glanced at the thrashing Juniper who was screeching that Jig had broken his nose. The judge’s face twitched uncontrollably and he found it necessary to blow his nose as he mumbled, somewhat incoherently for Jig and Titus to run along.
The boys were in silent agreement that it would be wise to leave before Juniper could heave himself out of the pond and track them down. They wiggled through the now-chuckling crowd and, once they had reached the safety of the shadows of a nearby tent, they looked at one another and burst out laughing.
When they were finally capable of intermittent speech, they amused themselves by imitating Juniper’s fall into the water and the judge’s astounded reaction. They took special delight in imitating Juniper’s high pitched, “He broke my nose!”
It was some time before they were fit for anything again and when they were, Jig grabbed Titus’s arm and whispered: “Let’s go to the bakery tents!”
Ten minutes later, they were bending over tables and observing the mouthwatering spread before them. The torches and colored lanterns outside glimmered dully through the semi-sheer sides of the tent and around the crack in the flap, a meager light that barely illuminated one another’s face and the various dainties before them. Rows upon rows of cakes, all frothy and gleaming with whipped icing, stacks of cream puffs—plump and bursting—tiers of pies with delicate latticework . . . all waiting to be presented to the panel of judges.
Jig bent over a pie table. “Look,” he whispered. “There’s a bit that’s going to come off—see?”
“Where?” Titus asked, leaning closer to look.
“Right there,” Jig insisted, jabbing his finger at a particular section of pie crust, and he appeared to stop himself just in time from the temptation of “accidentally” prodding the piece free. He began to jump up and down, thumping his boots against the earth with all the strength he could muster, staring fixedly at the piece of crust, obviously in the hopes that his efforts would make the piece fall free “by accident.”
Titus gave him a disgusted kick and dragged him on to the next table. Jig, realizing that Titus wouldn’t allow him to “accidentally” sample any of the baked goods, became sulky and bored.
“We’ve been here long enough, let’s go,” he insisted as Titus leaned over a pie and inhaled its fragrance.
“I want to show you something. Come on—please?”
Titus glanced at Jig and the boy reached into his tunic and produced a slim liquor bottle.
“Where did you get that?” Titus asked, horrified.
Jig gave him an impatient look. “You sound just like a little old lady! You can calm down, it’s only pig liniment.”
“Pig liniment?” Titus probed suspiciously.
Jig gave him an injured look at the implication that he was lying, and, with a dramatic gesture, he jerked the cork free and thrust the open bottle underneath Titus’s nose.
Titus reeled back, coughing and clutching at his nose. “What is in that?” he asked feebly, his eyes watering from the stench.
“I can’t tell you; it’s been a secret recipe in my family for ages,” Jig said loftily. “It’s a cure-all for anything disgusting that breaks out on a pig’s skin.”
Titus was skeptical. “That’s what you wanted to show me?” He had his nose pinched shut and his voice sounded high and tiny as he waved at the air around his face.
Jig giggled at Titus’s voice before answering. “No—I want to show you my pig. The liniment is for her. She’s got something nasty on her skin.”
“You have a pig?”
“That’s right,” Jig glowed with pride. “I’ve got to rub her down and I thought you’d like to see her. She’s going to be racing tonight and I want her to be feeling fine. Of course,” he added more soberly, “I don’t really have a chance. Not with Juniper Inkberry’s pig racing against her. He hasn’t lost in eight years.”
A sudden rise of feminine voices outside the tent entrance made them both pause.
The image of two guilty-looking boys leaning over the cake tables—one of them holding a liquor bottle—flashed through Titus’s mind. There would be an awkward misunderstanding about the liquor bottle for certain. Either the women would think they were sneaking sips of something they shouldn’t, or that were trying to sabotage one of the cakes with something nasty. Besides all of that, the baked good tents were Rather Off Limits.
All of this must have been running through Jig’s head at the same, for they both threw themselves under the cake table at the same instant, smoothing the table cloth down behind them as the voices entered the tent.
A group of women bustled in to add their own contributions to the cake and pie tables, alternating between excited chatter and sharp criticism over their rival’s offerings.
The two boys froze, with Titus’s knee imbedded in Jig’s ribs and Jig’s face plastered against the back of Titus’s neck—clutching one another to keep from rolling out from under the narrow table.
The clucking and gibbering women finally left. Titus felt a long trail of drool easing down his shirt and he dove out from under the table with a disgusted grunt, kicking at Jig as he went. Jig let out a shrill squeal from the depths of the tablecloth and the table heaved fitfully as Jig’s head and shoulders made sudden contact with the table with a sharp crack. Jig crawled out from under the table, mumbling, “What’d you do that for?”
“You were drooling on me, you idiot,” Titus whispered—somewhat unnecessarily after all the noise they had been making.
“You didn’t have to kick me,” Jig whispered back—also unnecessarily.
“The cake show should be starting any time now,” said Titus, changing the subject. “Let’s get out of here.”
Jig wiggled to his feet, all eagerness again. “I want to show you my pig.”
“But we were just there.”
“So? We’ll go back again.”
Titus followed reluctantly as Jig dragged him across the festival grounds and back to the swine paddocks. He led Titus to the small barn situated in the midst of the paddocks, pushed it open, and shoved Titus inside.
A monstrous snort emerged directly from the pin on Titus’s left and he jerked, turning to see a large snout and two beady eyes peering at him from between the slats of the sty. Titus would have recognized that face anywhere.
“Yarrow probably thought Her Highness might catch cold outside,” Jig said distastefully, glancing over Titus’s shoulder and pulling a hideous face at Sweetness.
Sweetness grunted threateningly and Jig preformed a little dance in front of him, poking his thumbs in his ears and wiggling the rest of his fingers at Sweetness. “Aw, you stupid pig. You can’t get us!”
Titus grabbed his arm and dragged him onto the next pen. “Don’t encourage him.”
Jig looked at him as if he were stupid and then pointed to a sty several stalls over. “Here she is,” he declared, pointing downwards with a flourish.
Titus stepped closer and peered into the pen. A small, pale pink piglet eyed Titus curiously. The mild eyes fell upon Jig and she twitched her downy snout and gave a happy squeal. Jig leaned over the gate to scratch her behind the ears, causing her to squirm in delight.
“She’s a beauty,” Titus had to admit.
“Her name is Figs. I brought her snack with me.” Jig unbuttoned the pouch around his waist and removed a very squashy and not-very-nice looking package wrapped in brown paper.
“What is it?” Titus asked, dubious.
“Sour apples soaked in white lightning,” Jig said with relish.
“She loves it,” Jig shrugged, adding with a laugh. “She’s the only pig I know that does.”
“Doesn’t it make her tipsy?”
“Not her. She can hold her liquor better than anybody at the White Raven. Can’t you, babykins?” Jig opened the gate and held it partially open for Titus. “Come on in.”
Titus sighed and stepped in after him, making sure he watched where he set his boots.
Jig knelt in the hay, unwrapped the package, and held it out to Figs. The piglet dove into the mash and for a moment there was no sound save for her contented snuffling.
“Go ahead and pet her,” Jig urged. “She loves it.”
Titus gingerly touched Figs snout with his fingertip. Figs squealed and jumped away.
“That’s funny,” said Jig, scratching Figs on the head to soothe her as he shot Titus a puzzled look. “She usually loves everybody.”
Titus didn’t think there was anything funny about it, and he was about to confide with Jig that animals rarely liked him when there was a tremendous crash behind them that shook the paddock. Every previous thought was kicked out of Titus’s mind with the ensuing din of fierce squealing, followed by another earsplitting crash and the groan of wood tearing apart. Splinters peppered Titus’s back and his hair.
“It’s Sweetness!” Jig yelled. “Run!”
Titus vaulted clear of the paddock, grabbed the gate, and flung it shut behind him just as Jig ran full into it. The force of the blow caused Jig to flip over the gate and land partially on his head and partially on Figs, who had been tucked under Jig’s arm when he made his escape.
There was a ferocious clamor in the paddock behind them.
Jig peaked through the fencing. “He just ate Figs’ snack!”
Sweetness had inhaled nearly everything edible in sight, and he had a peculiar expression on his face as he let out a low snort.
“Uh-oh.” Jig remarked.
The pig let out series of resounding belches and swayed vaguely through the pen.
“I think he’s . . . . getting . . . drunk,” Titus exclaimed.
Jig whistled. “That will make the weighing contest interesting. A drunk Sweetness will be even nastier to deal with than normal.”
The image of Sweetness being ill to his stomach all over the judges’ boots floated before Titus’s mind. It wasn’t a pleasant scenario to contemplate.
“It was an accident,” Jig shrugged. “It’s not our fault Sweetness smelled food and ripped through the pens. Nothing short of a rocket would have stopped him from eating what he wants.” He giggled. “Maybe Loris will win the contest after all.”
“Jig,” Titus reproved sharply. “Oh well, come on. The baked goods contests will be starting.”
They made their way to the area dedicated to the baking contests. A wooden stage had been erected and lined with tables. All of the baked goods had been separated by category. Benches had been set up in two sections in front of the stage, with an aisle in between.
Titus and Jig wiggled past pointy knees and bounced over stomachs until they found two empty spaces towards the front.
The three judges—Diggle McCunn, Muriella Brownrigg, and Tom Puddifoot—climbed onto the stage and announced that the cake contest would begin.
There was a rush of excitement in the section of seating where Magnolia Inkberry was sitting as her friends nudged her; bobbing their heads and winking and whispering congratulations. Magnolia had a huge smile plastered on her face, as if she were practicing for when she stepped onto the dais to accept her award.
There had been ten entries for the best chocolate cake award, including Magnolia’s chocolate peanut pineapple cake—a winner of the chocolate cake division for many years, and a begrudged favorite of Hedgerose.
The sampling began. The judges whispered amongst themselves as they ate, some shaking their heads, others nodding. At last, they turned to Magnolia’s double layer cake and plunged a knife into the crusty frosting.
Contestants leaned forward, holding their breath, while the audience leaned back and let out their breaths in a sigh—already expecting the certain outcome.
Three plump pieces were slapped onto each judge’s plate by the enthusiastic Diggle. Tom raised his plate to sniff at his piece and his face contorted as if something about it offended him. Muriella was so excited she didn’t notice. She raised her fork eagerly to her mouth and took a generous mouthful. A peculiar expression washed over her face and she hurried to take a drink of water.
In the Inkberry cheering section, Magnolia stopped smiling.
Diggle and Tom’s reactions as they finally took a bit were even more telling. Cotton gagged into his handkerchief and, catching a glimpse of the ashen-faced Magnolia out of the corner of his eye, pretended to blow his nose. Tom, spluttering on his mouthful said in a loud hiss, “Don’t eat it!” A flurry of surprised whispers followed, sliding towards the audience like a wave across sand. Magnolia turning several shades redder and looked as if she might explode in various directions from shame, anger and confusion.
Titus—who had personally sampled Magnolia’s cake for many years—glanced at Jig and raised his eyebrows, perplexed. Jig was staring straight ahead, his mouth hanging open.
“What’s the matter?” Titus murmured.
Jig swallowed several times before he reached into his tunic and held up his liquor bottle between two fingers. It was empty.
“When we jumped under the table,” Jig said in an indistinct voice. “The bottle was still uncorked. It must have all flown out. . . .” He met Titus’s dismayed and judgmental gaze squeaked defensively, “It was dark!”
Titus wondered what ingesting pig liniment might do to someone’s stomach. “We have to tell the judges.”
“It won’t hurt them,” Jig insisted. “Arabella Clutterbuck drank half a bottle not too long ago, and she’s all right. She only felt a little queasy.”
But Arabella Clutterbuck was also the ugliest baby in all creation. Was there a connection? Furthermore, Titus seriously doubted the judges would qualify their future experiences as merely being “a little queasy.”
“Whether it hurts them or not—it certainly hurt Magnolia’s cake. Not to mention her record. She hasn’t lost a cake contest in twelve years.”
“I just turned thirteen,” Jig sighed.
“Thirteen’s an unlucky number,” Jig said miserably.
Titus glanced back at the whispering judges. They were probably trying to decide whether to demand whom the prankster was that was trying to poison them or assume the worst—that Magnolia really had lost all her talent in cake baking—and say nothing. Every so often one of them would cast a puzzled expression from the cake to Magnolia. Finally, they moved on hastily to an orange jam chocolate cake submitted by another contestant, obviously opting for silence.
Titus thought that now would be the appropriate time to do the right thing and stand up and admit what had happened, but Jig did not hold with such honorable ideas.
“Let’s leave,” he whispered, standing up and wiggling through the audience. Titus, glancing at the agitated judges and the furious Magnolia, cleared his throat, and followed Jig.
Once they were a safe distance away, Jig pulled Titus aside and said, “It’s almost time for the pig racing; I’ve got to get Figs.”
Titus nodded. “I’ll meet you there.”
Jig disappeared into the crowd, and Titus made his way to the pig track.
The track was a simple affair; a marked off area of grass, about a fifty feet long. The track was wide enough across for at least twenty pigs or piglets to run side by side. The starting line was marked by the wooden platform the starter would stand upon and a stripe of yellow paint. The finishing line was marked with another platform for the judge to stand on and a rope made of colorful scarves knotted together and pulled taut between two trees about six inches off the ground.
The area was already swarming with people on both sides of the track. Jig popped up by Titus’s side with Figs tucked under his arm like a parcel.
Titus barely had time to ask an obligatory, “All ready?” before Jig shoved Figs into his arms, gabbling, “Hold Figs will you? She hasn’t had her treat yet, I have to go get more.”
“You can’t go anywhere now!” Titus protested. “The race is about to start.”
“But it’s her good luck treat.” Jig insisted, shaking off Titus’s arm and diving into the crowd, yelling over his shoulder, “She won’t race without it!”
Titus glanced down at Figs, who, save for a slightly injured look, was surprisingly just as docile under his arm as she had been under Jig’s. It was obvious Jig had just liberally wiped her down with his special pig liniment, the smell was terrific and she was confoundedly slippery.
Contestants were swarming towards the starting line with pigs under their arms, pigs on leads, and some particularly well-trained pig following them like dogs. Titus hurried to catch up and as he fought his way fought the crowd, suddenly found himself face to face with Juniper Inkberry.
An image of Juniper thrashing in the duck pond floated before Titus’s mind and he barely restrained himself from laughing outright in the Inkberry’s face. He was about to duck past him, when Juniper collared him and frowned as if he were thinking very hard.
“Hey, didn’t I see you hanging around with that Totkin idiot, earlier?”
“Um . . . you might have,” Titus said, cautiously.
Juniper seemed to grow several inches bigger as he loomed closer, his face a sneer. “Friend of yours?”
Figs shook her head and pressed her greasy snout against Juniper’s hand with curiosity. He leaped back as if he had been poisoned and glared at her, his voice hostile. “You entering a pig?”
“She belongs to a friend of mine.” Titus paused, his own words hovering in his mind. Friend? Yes . . . friend . . .
Juniper broke rudely into his revelation by jabbing a finger at his chin, his eyes sharp with suspicion. “Jig’s?”
Titus bit his lip and darted past him and the larger boy yelled after him. “Don’t think for a minute that idiot or his stupid little pig has a chance! Blueberry hasn’t lost this race in eight years!”
Titus glanced down at Figs and thought grimly, we’ll see about that, as he hurried to take his place along the starting line.
Two minutes oozed by. The starter climbed up onto his platform. Craning his neck one way and another, Titus finally spotted Jig, standing on track beyond the finishing line.
There were at least a dozen contestants with him, waiting for their respective pigs with shouts of encouragement and wildly waving treats in the hopes their pig would run faster, while friends held their pigs at the starting line. Jig straightened from emptying a rucksack and flashed Titus a huge grin as he pointed to the load of apples at his feet.
Titus felt Figs tense in his arms. A tremor of energy ran through her squashy body and her back legs jerked convulsively. If they didn’t hurry soon, there was a good chance Figs would jump straight out of his arms and be disqualified.
Finally, the elderly started produced a spotted handkerchief from his pocket and waved it above his head to get everyone’s attention. There was an impressive pause, and then he let it drop.
The handkerchief had barely fluttered from his fingertips before the pigs were released.
The crowd erupted as if the king himself were riding through their midst and Titus found himself cheering and leaping up and down with the rest of them.
Figs was running faster than Titus would have thought possible, a dwarf amongst a sea of rampaging giants. Her hooves were a blur, her curly tail bobbed wildly as she pointed her nose to the ground and put on another burst of speed. She darted underneath the legs of a huge pig and there was a ferocious tangle. Titus was almost afraid that she had been knocked down when he saw her again, pulling away from the others and diving underneath the finishing line. The handkerchiefs that formed the line trembling almost imperceptibly as they caught on her ears.
The crowd knew Figs had won even before the judge held up the slate with her name on it. A rousing cheer spread throughout the green—even the losers yelled good-natured congratulations.
Figs dove into Jig’s waiting arms, setting her jaws eagerly into one of the apples he held in his outstretched hands.
Jig’s smile was so wide it looked as if it would split his face open. He was blissfully unaware of the mud and pig ointment splattering his new tunic and smeared across his face, as villagers reached out to clap him on the back. Titus fought his way through the crowd and grabbed Jig’s hand, shaking it vigorously as he leaned forward to bellow his congratulations into the boy’s ear. Jig eyes lit up as he saw Titus and he clutched at him, shouting eagerly, “We won Titus! We won, we won!”
“I know! I know!” Titus yelled just as happily as he pounded the boy on the back with one hand and recklessly stroked Figs with the other. “You beat him, Jig. You beat an Inkberry!”
“Figs beat him,” Jig said proudly, scratching the piglet behind her ears.
It was some time before the two boys could extract themselves from the crowd, skirting around a sour-looking Juniper. They put Figs back in her pen in the barn again, so happy with this last triumph they piled her stall with soft hay and treats. Sweetness’s pen was mysteriously absent—either the Inkberry’s had taken him home or they were having a lively time trying to weigh him—and the sight caused Jig and Titus to gleefully perform the Victory at Isinfree at the top of their lungs, dance steps and all, much to the puzzlement of the rest of the livestock.
Giddy with their own foolery, they wandered out of the barn and to the baked goods section again and Titus treated Jig to an entire box of fudge. Jig, feeling unusually magnanimous, went halves.
The evening was beginning to wind down. Jig and Titus agreed to meet there again tomorrow at sunset and spend the Spring Festivals second evening together, sealing the bargain with a piece of pie.
It was when they were purchasing their wedges of pie that Jig suddenly elbowed Titus and pointed to the baking contest stage. The trifle contests had begun. This time, the judges were seated behind a table on the stage and the contestants, seated next to each other in the front row of the audiences with their entries in their laps, would walk up onto the stage, serve the judges, set the dish down on the table and return to their seats.
Among the contestants was Holly Inkberry. A true Inkberry, Holly’s Blueberry Cream Trifle had won the contest for four years in a row and, like the rest of her family, she was always confident that she would keep her perfect record.
But tonight she was craning around in her seat, signaling wildly to her mother and brother who were standing at the back of the crowd. She looked as if were trying to question them about something. Titus guessed that it might have been something to do with her conspicuously absent father and a certain pig contest. Juniper shook his head woefully. Holly stared at him, so shocked that, for a moment, she didn’t hear the judge call her name. She started violently, blushing, and there was a smattering of laughter amongst the crowd that made her color even harder, this time with annoyance. Magnolia, looking on, glared into the crowd and then stared at her daughter, her fists clenched, as if willing her daughter, the last of the Inkberry’s, to win the contest and save their reputation.
Jig and Titus glanced at one another, their eyebrows raised and their curiosity piqued. Of one accord, they drifted closer to watch until they were standing behind the back row of seats.
Holly’s signature ingratiating smile seemed a little forced. She was not smoothing her dress, flipping her hair over her shoulder or winking at any of the boys in the crowd. Gone was the galling assuredness of winning. It seemed the Inkberry’s run of bad luck was affecting Holly’s confidence. She was blushing and paling interchangeably and the trifle appeared to be convulsing in her hands.
Titus shrugged to himself. Holly hadn’t been nervous when she had made that trifle, and if her cooking abilities had remained constant since last year, she would probably still win easily.
Titus was about to ask Jig that they leave before they had to watch the actual victory, when Holly suddenly tripped.
She was just seconds away from setting the trifle down on the table when her foot caught on the floorboards and the trifle flew out of her hands.
The trifle fell with a soft splat on the ground. There was a split second of stunned silence, broken almost immediately afterwards by a collective gasp from the crowd as Holly, in an effort to break her fall, grabbed the edge of the judge’s table.
The table jerked upwards and ten of the twelve trifles that had been previously sampled slid onto the floor or into the judges’ laps.
There was a barrage of plops as four of the trifles hit the ground, punctuated by shrill squeals and gasps from the judges as the rest of the trifles made their way into their laps, down their legs, and even down necks, since one judge had been bending forward in an attempt to catch one of the trifles had ended up with the majority of a Strawberry Toffee Supreme on her head.
Holly, scrambling to her feet, let out a hysterical shriek and fled the stage without attempting to help clean up or apologize. Magnolia began yelling that someone was plotting against the Inkberry’s, demanded that the stage be examined for sabotage, and insisted that the contest be reconvened to another date. The judge with the Strawberry Toffee Supreme on her head was jumping up and down and clutching at her back and emitting periodic squeaks as bits of cold cream found their way down her dress. Another judge jumped up to help her, slipped on a puddle of raspberries, and fell to the stage with a resounding crash. The children in the crowd broke away from their parents and swarmed over the stage, attempting to scrap up the remains of the trifles and shove them into their mouths. Parents were quick to follow and, in their efforts to put an end to such nonsense, ear-splitting temper tantrums ensued.
Jig and Titus remained on the outskirts of the delicious chaos and watched for some time, then realized that it must be nearly ten o’clock and time to be going.
They wandered away, making their way slowly to the outskirts of the festival. They spotted Loris Goodchild among a crowd of friends, his broad red face beaming as they pounded him on the back, shouting congratulations and insisting on buying him a drink for having the Biggest Pig In Town.
Jig and Titus strolled on, not speaking for a while. It wasn’t very gracious, considering the consecutive loses of record holders who had won for twelve, eight, five and four years running—but as they walked home together with Figs, munching contentedly on fudge and attempting to jump into pools of moonlight, they began to sing In The Deep, Deep Silver Night as loudly and as raucously as they possibly could. Partially to make an aggravating clamor for onlookers, partially because they felt like it, and mostly because such a night deserved some kind of celebration.
This is copyrighted by Allison Tebo 2018© Please do not use or copy without permission.
If you missed Chapter One, you can read it HERE.
If you missed Chapter Two, you can read it HERE.
Add Life At Hedgerose to your Goodreads shelf HERE.
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