Titus scooped up a handful of earth, rubbing the cool soil between his fingers and then turning his hand over to let it funnel out of his palm, listening to its soft whisper as it fell to the ground. It was early in the morning and the hot sun on his back still felt pleasant. Titus hoped that he would be able to get his corn planted before afternoon when the heat would become unbearable. He leaned a little further back on his haunches and squinted up at the sky. It couldn’t have been ten o’clock yet and he had already planted his rutabagas and cabbages and beets and carrots. Surely such progress warranted a small break.
Titus sat down in the loam and reached a grubby hand into the bag at his hip to retrieve the scone he had pocketed on his way out into the garden earlier that morning. Leaning back, he snagged the bottle of mint cordial he had set beside the fence next to his gardening tools. He uncorked it and took a generous swallow, the cool sweetness burning pleasantly in his throat. He took a bite of scone and sighed contentedly, spraying crumbs as he stretched out his legs and dug them into the soil, whistling snatches of Possum In a Tree between oaty mouthfuls.
The sudden bleat of a goat exploded so loudly behind him that Titus positively erupted from his repose, a yell of shock involuntarily escaping his lips as he surged to his feet. The half-eaten scone flew in one direction and a stream of mint cordial showered a newly-planted row of potatoes, before the bottle slipped from his hand, crashing painfully on top of his foot and spilling the contents over his shoes.
Titus whirled and stared at the white-speckled goat standing at his feet, feeling rather sheepishly.
“For goodness sakes,” Titus muttered disgustedly, surveying the wreckage around him and tapping his chest to see if his heart was still beating.
The goat cocked its head and bleated again. It sounded less then friendly.
“Look what you’ve done,” Titus snapped, stooping to pick up the empty bottle.
The goat edged closer to him, sniffing at his shoes with a disgusted air and craning her head back to eye him with wicked yellow eyes.
Titus, beginning to feel a little uneasy, poked a foot at her. “Go on. You’ve made enough of a fool of me already. Go home.”
The goat shoved its head at Titus’s legs and Titus pushed it away with his foot. The goat bleated angrily and shook its head, prancing wrathfully and pawing the ground.
“Oh no,” Titus muttered, backing up a pace. “Nice goat.”
The goat eyed him balefully.
Titus smiled hopefully. “Nice?”
The goat charged.
Titus turned and leapt over a fence. The goat crashed into the middle rung of the fence so violently it caused the frame to shake.
Titus leapt to his feet, clawing cabbage leaves off of his head as he backed away.
The goat staggered for several moments, seeming momentarily dazed, then shook her and wiggled under the fence as easily as a small dog. Titus took off running as fast as he could muster, the goat hard on his heels.
Out of the corner of his eye, Titus saw a girl, a little younger them himself, keeping well abreast of them on the other side of the fence, hair ribbons and skirts streaming behind her as she leaped over a vegetable patch, waving a piece of rope above her head like a flag of surrender and screaming at the top of her voice: “Melinda! Come back here!”
Titus grabbed the branches of a small, ornamental tree and swung himself up into its branches. Melinda the goat braced her front legs against the trunk of the tree and bleated angrily.
A front window of the house in front of the ornamental tree popped open. Miriam Stonecrusher poked her head out. Being rather deaf, she didn’t hear the goat—and an abundance of leaves hid Titus from view, but she did see the young girl thundering past her window and through the Stonecrusher’s yard. She startled the old lady so badly, Miriam’s spectacles were dislodged from her twitching nose, falling into a window box as she yelled after the girl to mind her ways and stop acting like a hussy.
Heedless to Miriam’s disapproval, the girl vaulted over a fence and stomped even more heedlessly through a tomato bush as she made her way to the ornamental tree, Titus, and her wayward goat. Her pace had slowed to a march. Apparently she thought with Titus safe in his tree, and since Melinda was loath to leave her quarry, that the chase was over.
The tree bent ominously under Titus’s weight. He bobbed off the end of a branch like an oversized apple on a stick, bringing the majority of his body in butting proximity of the goat. The goat was quick to see this and jabbed savagely at Titus’s back end with her horns.
“Ow!” Her jab was more then enough to dislodge Titus from the tree and send him crashing to the ground directly on top of Melinda.
The goat let out the mighty yell of protest, jangling discordantly with Titus’s own yell of surprise. They were a mad tangle of hooves and hands as they scrambled to disentangle themselves. Titus stumbled to his feet, surprised, and a little disappointed, that the sudden and violent impact of his fall hadn’t killed Melinda. Far from it, the goat was already staggering to its feet, tottering weakly around, and bleating her desire for vengeance on whatever had sat on her.
Titus was just about to run for it again when the girl scurried up, seized the goat by the horns, and looped a rope around her neck.
“Melinda!” she scolded. “You naughty girl! What are you thinking, chasing the nice boy? My first day back home and this is the welcome I get. You should be ashamed of yourself.” The girl knotted the end of the rope around the Melinda’s neck and gave the goat’s horns one last disapproving tug. Melinda had subsided from her violent temper with amazing rapidity, and was now leaning against the girl as docilely as a lamb. The goat snuck a glance at Titus, her eyes glinting.
Faker, Titus thought.
The girl turned and studied Titus with an expectant look, her mouth quirking at the edges as if she were waiting—rather eagerly—for Titus to do something. It was the first time Titus had been able to see her when she not in motion, and her features began to register in his memory. The expressive, heart shaped face and bright eyes the color of acorn caps. The wild mane of reddish brown waves and slightly upturned nose.
“Hazel?” Titus gaped.
Hazel laughed. “That’s right. Don’t you remember me?”
“Of course, I do,” he said quickly. “How are you?”
“Better, now.” She glanced sideways at Titus and laughed and added hastily. “Now that I’m back.” She cast an eye over Titus’s disheveled appearance. “Are you all right?”
Titus nodded and sat down on the grass to catch his breathe. Hazel sat down next to him and Titus reached forward and plucked a blade of grass, peeling it absentmindly while he pondered Hazel’s sudden return.
Hazel Firestroke, the blacksmith’s only child, had been gone from Hedgerose for nearly a year. For six months she had been miles to the north with her father, caring for a sick great aunt. After that, she had been sent away to stay with relations in CotterGlen for another six months, due to the nattering of the partially-revived and ever-interfering aunt in the vain hopes that time spent with the “townified” relations at the more refined CotterGlen would produce a “genteeling affect.” Judging from the spectacle Titus had just been witness to, he thought it safe to guess that the attempt to tame Hazel had not succeeded.
He and Hazel had used to be good friends, but then a year ago she had left Hedgerose and now, Titus felt strangely tongue-tied. Hazel’s year-long absence could easily explain the awkwardness, but it was not that alone. He felt different. He had begun seeking his place among the boys of the village. Folrolf had discharged their cook and housekeeper and Titus had begun caring for both of them. His study periods had become more complicated as Folrolf began tutoring him in advanced mathematics and languages. Hazel and their friendship had faded more-or-less comfortably into the background. In that year before she had left, she had always seemed to have plenty of other friends and always be busy, so Titus had thought she hadn’t minded.
Titus pulled himself out of his private thoughts and asked politely, “Did you like CotterGlen?”
Hazel poked a finger through a clump of moss. “I hated it, actually.”
Hazel tossed a dandelion into the wind and threw herself down on the grass, staring at the sky and smiling dreamily. “It really is delicious to be home. Has anything changed much while I was gone?” She waved a hand at their surroundings.
“Folrolf adopted a hatchling.” Titus ventured, offering the most exciting news he had to give to someone who had spent a year in the outside world and outside of their unexciting village.
“No!” Hazel squealed. “Tell me everything!”
“Some blasted gypsy left it on our doorstep and now Folrolf wants to raise it. You can see it sometime, I suppose. Mostly it just sleeps.”
“Of course, I want to see it! You don’t sound too happy about having a dragon around. I wish I had one!”
Titus shrugged, beginning to regret bringing it up. He changed the subject. “That’s really all that’s happened. Nothing changes too much, here.”
“No, no it doesn’t.” Hazel said quietly, smiling suddenly. “Perhaps that’s what makes it so lovely to come back to.” She grinned at him. “This is just like normal too, isn’t it?”
“Dustfinger and Lyonesse.” Hazel sat up. “You didn’t forget did you? The Fearless Two? All those wild scraps we were always in?”
“That was a while ago,” Titus said, and not wanting to see whether she looked hurt or ruffled by that comment he added hastily. “All of those scraps you were always getting me into.”
“You have tomato on your shirt, Titus,” Hazel said, pointing at his shoulder. “Here.” She pulled a handkerchief out of her apron pocket and un-crumpled it.
“Is that clean?” Titus sniffed.
“Cleaner than your shirt,” Hazel said tartly.
“I’ll use mine.” Titus removed a spotted handkerchief from his back pocket and Hazel took it from him. “Did you . . .” She paused, looking wicked, as she nodded towards his shirt. “Fall in a garden path while you were . . . running?” She made an explosive sound as if she were trying very hard not to laugh.
Titus glared at her.
“Don’t tell me you’re still scare—don’t like animals,” said Hazel, scrubbing at his shirt front. “Oh dear. Now I’ve just made it worse. May I spit on it?”
“Certainly not,” said Titus, taking the handkerchief from her.
“Hmm, I’d forgotten how fussy you are.”
“I’m not fussy!” Titus protested.
“All right, all right. Neat, then.” Hazel crammed her handkerchief back into her pocket. “Anyhow, don’t be fractious; I’ve had my full share of fusspots this last year. We are going to be nice and easy again, aren’t we? Now that I’m back?”
Titus scratched his head. It was as if she had forgotten that they hadn’t been spending time together even before she left. “Of course, if you want to.”
“And you don’t?” Hazel asked sharply, looking suddenly close to tears.
“Of course I do,” Titus said quickly. “I just thought you had other friends now.”
“Why Titus! We’ll always be good friends. Don’t you remember? We promised we would be years and years ago when you first came to Hedgerose.” Hazel crushed a dandelion, looking forlorn. “I thought you had made other friends and had forgotten me.”
“No, I didn’t. That is, not like—you.” Titus felt confoundedly awkward, but he’d thought he better keep on feeling foolish, or Hazel would think he didn’t mean it. “You’ll always be my first friend in Hedgerose.”
Hazel examined him a moment then smiled, seemingly satisfied. “Good.” She thrust out her hand and they shook on it, then Hazel wrapped her arms around her knees and rocked back on her heels. “How is Folrolf?”
“He’s well. He’s . . . Folrolf.” They both smiled with affection. “He’s not in Hedgerose today, he’s gone to Coridoor.”
“What a shame, I was hoping to say hello to him. Jack-By-The-Hedge Carbunkle and I are meeting at the White Raven for lunch, would you like to come?”
”Oh—well—all right,” Titus said involuntarily, thrown off balance by her abruptness.
“Wonderful,” Hazel said cheerfully as she sprung to her feet, “I have to go. See you then.” And she was gone, leaving Titus quite at a loss after the sudden whirlwind.
Hazel certainly had a lot to talk about and Titus was content to let her rattle on while he ate. Hedge, who never had much to say, listened to Hazel’s animated account of her months at CotterGlen with a rapt expression, while Titus tried in vain to stab one of the shiny and slippery little potatoes on his plate. It squirted off of his plate and skittered across the floor after the handful of others that had been shooting helter-shelter off the table for the past ten minutes to land under chairs, tables, and startled feet.
There was a sudden commotion outside, pushing at the edges of the gentle and busy hum of the tavern, and then a legion of Totkins erupted into the room, laughing and singing at the top of their voices. A fat one in their midst—Titus thought it may have been Laban Totkin—fell down with a startled whoop, the small object that had caused him to slip bouncing off the neck of another Totkin. It might have been a boiled potato. A squabble instantly broke out and was quelled a few moments later by a sharp rap from a beer mug on the heads of the offenders as Adam Totkin bawled: “None of that now, lads!”
“Oh no,” Titus mumbled.
Hazel was watching with interest. “Why are they here? It’s not Saturday, and they always brawl on Saturdays, not Mondays.”
“They must be celebrating something. Come on, we had better go.”
“A round of ale all around!” one of the Totkins shouted.
“’Cept for Broom.” Bracken Totkin—Broom’s twin—cackled. “He’s too likkle for anything but cordial.”
Broom’s peevish answer was drowned out by a thunderous bout of laughter.
“But if it’s a celebration, why can’t we join in?” Hazel said to Titus, smiling at the Totkins. “Or at least congratulate them on whatever’s happened.”
“Hazel!” Titus hissed as she jumped up from her chair and made her way to the nearest Totkin, giving him a hearty slap on the back just as he was swallowing an immense mouthful of ale. The Totkin turned around, irritated, then stopped when he saw Hazel and beamed. “Well, if it isn’t pretty Hazel! Come back from CotterGlen are you? Did you like it there?”
“You can bet to kiss a pig I didn’t!”
The two of them roared with laughter like a pair of old army friends.
Titus got up, watching uneasily, and began making his way towards Hazel and the door trying to look as unnoticeable as possible as he gestured at Hedge to follow him.
“Pleased to be back, then?” Another Totkin bellowed in Hazel’s face.
“Very much.” said Hazel, laughing.
“C’mon then!” said the first Totkin. “Give a handsome codger a hug to show how much you missed us!”
“Just as soon as you point out any handsome codgers!” Hazel responded merrily.
The two Totkins dissolved into laughter, clutching one another as they slid to the floor.
Titus grabbed Hazel by the elbow. “Don’t you’d think we’d better leave now?”
“Whatever for, lad?” a Totkin asked.
Titus forced a smile. “Because . . . Hazel has someone she has to see. Don’t you?” he demanded, hoping that she would take the hint.
“Who do I have to see?” Hazel asked, puzzled.
“Why . . . everyone!” Blast.
“But everyone’s here, me bucko!” a Totkin yelled good-naturedly. “Everyone important, that is.” He winked at his fellow Totkins and gave Titus a friendly buffet that sent him stumbling into the lap of Ira Totkin who was seated at a nearby table. Titus was still holding Hazel’s elbow, and she crashed into his lap with a squeal of protest. Ira promptly deposited them on the floor with one twitch of his immense frame. There was a general struggle of arms and legs as Hazel and Titus were helped to their feet by several too-helpful Totkins who nearly pulled their hands off in their friendly efforts.
“There, now.” Carl Totkin said comfortably. “Set to uprights again. Didn’t hurt you?” he asked peering at Titus.
“Of course not.” Titus stuck his bruised hand into his pocket and cast a desperate look over his shoulder at Hedge. The boy was still at the table and seemed to be having some difficulty over the bill as he sorted through numerous pockets in an apparent effort to locate coins to pay for their meal.
“Who are you calling a tangletwit?” a Totkin snarled suddenly behind Titus. “I was mending fences before you were born, you blockhead. I knows how to mend “em!”
“Here lass, wrap your chops around that lot!” a Totkin pressed a tankard into Hazel’s hands. “Don’t worry, it’s only lemonade.”
Carl Totkin raised his mug, roaring. “Down with CotterGlen! And all of its namby pamby, ninny pinnys!”
“Down with CotterGlen and all its namby pamby, ninny pinnys!” Hazel echoed him enthusiastically, clinking tankards.
“Perhaps we had better be going.” Titus suggested forcefully, tugging on Hazel’s arm.
Hedge was still emptying his pockets, and the collection on the table was growing sizably, from caterpillars to firecrackers . . . but still no coins.
Griffin Totkin dug an elbow into Titus’s ribs. “Awh, now. Don’t be selfish. There’s lots of friends wanting to welcome Hazel back to Hedgerose. Want some lemonade?”
“No thanks,” said Titus. Hedge had disappeared under the table and was patting the ground, presumably for anything he might have dropped.
A Totkin passed Titus a mug. “You have to have drink with us—to celebrate.”
Titus realized in the one moment he had looked away he had lost sight of Hazel. He looked about wildly and was about to stand on a table to see if he could spot her under one of the half a dozen squabbling knots of Totkins when he spotted the top of her head. She was worming her way to the other end of the room, waving at someone.
Titus pushed the mug back at the Totkin who had offered it to him. “Thanks, but we really have to be going.”
“Anxious fellar, ‘idn’t he?” said a Totkin, eyeing Titus.
“You’d almost think we weren’t proper fit company, the way he’s actin’!”
“No! Of course not!” Titus protested weakly.
“Too good to hang about with Totkins, ay?” Nob demanded.
Hedge must have found some coins for he was collecting his possessions again and returning them to his numerous pockets as he made his way slowly towards Titus.
Alt poked Titus in the chest with a finger. “Think we’re below you, is that it, you little taterhead?”
“No!” Titus fairly shouted.
There was a deafening whistle from someone in the crowd as Tobias Totkin waved his hands above his head impressively for silence, inadvertently drenching a neighbor with his full tankard.
After the room had resided into reasonable quiet, Tobias began to heave his considerable bulk onto a table. There were one or two anxious moments when it seemed as if he wasn’t going to make it. Several Totkins moved behind him, shouting encouragement and giving him a helpful push. Tobias finally stood erect and staggered to the center of the table and it creaked ominously under his weight. He lifted his hands for silence again and spent the good part of a minute staring solemnly about as if he had quite forgotten what he was going to say. It wasn’t unlikely. Tobias had an infamously bad memory. Some people said thoughts went in one ear and out the other quicker than a lizard in and out of a hole.
“Speech!” Alt Totkin prompted him.
“Of course.” Tobias answered automatically, hooking his thumbs into his trousers as he pulled them further up over his stomach, leaning back on his heels as he began. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Tobias gazed soulfully into the crowd, bobbing his head several times. He ran a tongue along his lips. “Gentlemen,” Tobias repeated soberly and stared gravely into his empty mug for several moments before someone kicked him. “Ladies and Gentlemen.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen what?” said Laban.
“Ladies and Gentlemen!” Tobias repeated. “Today is a momentous occasion. . . .” He thought a moment, rubbing his nose, “A day among days. An epoch in this fair village of Hedgerose. Today is—
“Get on with it!” Ted complained.
Tobias turned around quickly, frowning into the knot of Totkins, trying to locate the speaker and, failing, turned again to the crowd, clearing his throat and raising his hands. “Ladies and Gentlemen!”
“You just said that!” Ferdy yelled in exasperation.
Tobias ignored him “Ladies and Gentlemen . . . today is a momentous occasion. A day among days, an epoch in this fair village of Hedgerose. A time for celebration. Tansy Totkin, my cousin,” he thought hard for a moment and brightened, “On my mother’s side—had a baby girl only an hour ago this very day.”
The room burst into applause and Tobias beamed and bowed. When the room quieted down again he flourished his cup dramatically. “Her name, is Daffydil,”
“That’s Daffodil,” Laban hissed.
Tobias swayed around and glared at him. “I’m giving this speech,”
“Well get it right, bufflehead!”
“Wot? I’ll teach you to call me bufflehead!”
Tobias came off the table swinging, but his considerable weight was against him and when the table went out from under him, so did his feet. He crashed stomach-first into Robin Totkin, sending the smaller man toppling to the ground. Ted swung at Tobias but missed, and he hit Griffin instead, thwacking him in the jaw with a painful crack. Griffin went down, taking several others with him, and the frenzy began.
Carl, ever the one to cross his t’s and wanting to make sure this was official yelled, “Fight!” and was promptly knocked unconscious by his great uncle Ira.
Titus made a mad dash for the bar and someone’s elbow caught him in the eye, knocking him to the floor. He laid there a moment as blackness jangled in his head and before his eyes. Someone stepped on his hand and he let out a yell of pain. He turned furiously and seized the ankle of the offender, yanking it as hard as he could and sending the Totkin crashing to the ground. A flailing shoe caught Titus in the nose and he reached up dizzily to touch his nose and pulled it away to see blood. Titus looked about lividly, spotted young Bobbin Totkin and grabbed him by the shoulders, lifting him off of his brother and dragging him through the flailing battle.
“What are you doing, what are you doing, what are you doing, aweehhhaweh!”
Titus picked Boffin up bodily and dumped him over the bar on his head before grabbing the open mouth Hazel and Hedge by their elbows.
“Get out, quick! Get behind the bar—something!” Titus yelled.
“Look! Look!” Halfred was screaming excitedly as he jumped up and down—still holding his brother Ferdy by the hair—and pointed at Titus, “He just put Boffin over the bar!”
“Get him!” yelled Peridan.
The three Totkins charged and Titus caught up a chair and threw it at them, sending them sprawling to the floor.
“Look what he did!” Robin Totkin shouted. “He just hit Per and Hal and Ferdy with a table!”
Adam Totkin—Hal’s father—turned and sent a beer bottle flying at Titus.
Titus ducked and heard it shatter behind him.
“Get him, son!” Adam bawled as Robin lunged over a table, snatching at Titus.
Titus skipped to one side and thrust out a leg, sending the clumsy Robin stumbling to the floor.
“Look what he did!” Nob yelled, pointing. “He tripped Robin!”
Boffin and Ira turned from rolling up Alt Totkin in a table cloth and charged towards Titus.
Titus pointed at Nob and bellowed back. “Look what he did! He just hit Uncle Ephi with a beer mug!”
Nob paled. “No I didn’t!” He shrieked.
Boffin and Ira stopped short, looking from Nob to Titus. Displaying true teamwork, Boffin charged Titus while Ira descended on the squalling Nob.
Titus turned and ran for the bar, vaulting over it and landing with a jarring crash on the floor, directly between Hedge and Hazel.
“I told you to get out!” He wheezed.
“You also said or get behind the bar or something, so we did.” Said Hazel primly.
“Your nose is bleeding, Titus,” said Hedge.
“You were wonderful!” Hazel added admiringly as she peered into Titus’s face. “Yes, you do have a little bit of blood on your nose, and I think your eye’s swelling shut too. Hold still.” She jabbed at his nose with a handkerchief and Titus jerked away.
“Ow! Let me do it!” Titus grabbed the handkerchief from her and pressed gently at his nose. “I don’t how I’m going to explain a black eye to Folrolf,” he said sullenly.
The three children sat a moment in silence, listening to the battle raging above their heads and Hazel suddenly gave a small happy sigh.
“It really is wonderful to be home again.”
This is copyrighted by Allison Tebo 2018© Please do not use or copy without permission.
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