Author’s note: This is something different for me, a little fantasy story in third person POV. Also, I challenged myself to write a story that included bunnies because I always write about demons, monsters, and evil dictators. So, this is what I came up with. :)
Knock. Knock. Knock.
“Doodle, no need to knock. I can see you standing out there.” Stump says, looking out a knothole of the old tree he calls home.
“We need to go today. We need to pack and get across the cavern before the snow is upon us!” Doodle says in anxious cadence.
These are Hollow Folk, fully grown men, about the height of a pint of ale. They live in the hollow they have called home for generations, hidden deep in the ancient forest.
Doodle sticks his head through the knothole, which is barely big enough for a ball of yarn. His beard and pointed hat fill the opening, making him appear to Stump like a mounted trophy.
Stump chuckles, which only agitates Doodle more.
“The winter snow has already overtaken the mountain. By my measure, it will be nary a day before it reaches the hollow.” Doodle says.
“You’re always in such a fuss.” Stump replies. Leaning back, he pulls a flint from his vest pocket and lights his pipe. “Why don’t we enjoy the last of summer here, we can leave in a week or more. That’s plenty of time to make it across the cavern bridge.”
“No, no!” Doodle says “The Snow Witch is moving in haste this year, much more quickly than before.”
“Relax, come in, and enjoy a cup of ale with me. We’ll be fine. Have I ever let you down?” Stump asks.
“Yes, many times.” Doodle responds.
With that, Doodle removes his head from the window and scurries off.
“He really needs to be a bit less hurried,” Stump mumbles, pouring another mug.
Several days later.
Stump wakes to the crisp morning air. He pulls his covers up, listening to the wind whistling through the hollow.
After several moments of reluctance, he climbs out of bed and peers outside. The meadow that had been full of late summer flowers has succumbed to the dismal colors of winter. His breath fogs and flutters in the chill.
“This is quite unexpected,” he mutters.
“Stump. Stump. Look, the snow is already here.” Doodle says, arriving in his usual hectic manner.
“Good morning, Mr. Peep. Would you have brought any warm tea, by chance?” Stump asks.
“No time for tea.” Doodle says, “The entire hollow left yesterday for Summer Valley. If we hurry, we can join them.”
“I’ll admit this turn of the season was surprising. Who would have predicted winter would come so early?” Stump says.
“I did,” Doodle responds annoyingly.
“Have you ever thought about staying?” Stump asks. “We always run off to the valley. Aren’t you curious about what winter brings?”
“Cold, gray, death.” Doodle responds impatiently, “Soon, the were-walkers will roam the forests. We would be a warm morsel for them. If they don’t find us, the Snow Witch will, and she will grind our bones for flour and use our fat for candles. Even now the sky scatters more of her winter fury.”
“Ok, ok, Doodle. We can go. I just need to pack a few things.”
“No need, I already packed a bag for you.” Doodle responds.
And at that, the two leave the hollow, walking out into the falling veil of snow.
A day into the journey - still no sign of the Hollow Folk.
“Doodle. Did you bring anything to eat? I’m famished,” Stump asks, sitting down to rest.
“I have berries, enough to last a week.” Doodle says, “I have divided it into daily portions.”
“Sit and eat with me.” Stump says wiping the snow from an old log.
“While there’s daylight, I must go to the ridge and map tomorrow’s path,” Doodle says. He pulls out a small wheel affixed with a clock hand and holds it in the air.
“What do you have there?” Stump asks, taking a pack of berries out of the lot, and shoving them into his mouth.
“It’s a directional mechanism I built,” Doodle responds proudly. “It will guide us to the cavern bridge.”
“You really are the crafty sort,” Stump comments, eating another handful of berries.
Doodle smiles at the compliment. It isn’t often that Stump notices anything beyond himself.
“Where’s the ale? What am I to drink?” Stump huffs, feverishly searching the packs.
Doodle’s moment of secret revelry dissolves.
“The melting snow will provide enough to drink.” Doodle replies.
“I should have stayed in the hollow,” Stump grumbles.
“Maybe you should have,” Doodle mumbles as he walks to the ridge.
The next morning.
Doodle wakes, pleased that his makeshift dwelling of branches and leaves stayed upright overnight. It even held against the weight of the newly fallen snow.
“Stump, wake up. The air is even colder now, we need to get moving.”
“Just a few moments more. I was dreaming of Sonia,” Stump responds with a sleepy grin.
“Come on. Get up.” Doodle says shaking Stump.
“No, … wait,” Doodle whispers.
“Well, what is it? Get up or wait?” Stump asks.
“Shhh!” Doodle responds.
Outside, the sound of feet trampling snow and dried foliage draws closer.
“Probably the Hollow Folk.” Stump whispers, “I told you we would find them.”
“Shhh, something isn’t right,” Doodle says. Taking a small cylinder from his pack, he extends it until it is as tall as he is. Carefully pushing one end through the snow covering, he peers into the opposite end, one eye squinting.
“Bunnies,” he whispers.
“Oh, good.” Stump says, “They always know the best taverns. We can grab a mug and some fat hash for breakfast. I’m starving.”
“Quiet!” Doodle whispers in a harsh tone, “These are hunters, they do the biding of the Snow Witch.”
“Are you daft?” Stump says “Bunnies are drunks. All they hunt for is a pint and a pub maid.”
“Stump. They are looking this way, stop the chatter.”
“Ugh, my leg has fallen asleep. It prickles,” Stump complains.
Stump slides his leg slightly to relieve the tingle, only to push over the support that is holding the makeshift covering above them. The weight of the snow collapses onto them, leaving their two heads sticking out of the rubble like a couple of curious gophers.
The entire forest pauses for a moment as they stare wide-eyed at the hunter bunnies and the hunter bunnies stare back.
“Run!” Doodle yells and the two take flight.
Now, Hollow Folk are small, but they are quite nimble, and they move with extraordinary quickness.
The two make some ground, but the bunnies being larger take greater strides in the chase.
Stump runs with the intensity of a fox on fire. He runs until he is deep in the forest. Until he can’t hear the pounding of feet behind him.
He stops to catch his breath; the forest is still; they eluded the predators.
“Doodle, where the devil did you learn about hunter bunnies?” Stump says through gasps of air, “Whoever heard of such madness?”
There is only silence.
Stump pokes his head over a log, surveying the landscape. He sees nothing, no hunter bunnies, no snow witch, but worst yet, no Doodle.
“Doodle?” he yells.
The forest echoes back his empty call; he is alone.
Stump tracks his path back to the place they had camped the night before. Still no sign of Doodle anywhere.
“Looks like he was carrying the packs.” Stump says “I wonder where he is hiding.”
He follows the path Doodle made moving carefully through the forest until he stops short.
The scene is horrific.
The bunnies caught Doodle here. They gutted the two backpacks, and there are red stains covering the snow everywhere. It could be the berries, it could be blood, it’s difficult to tell.
Stump collapses to his knees. This was his fault. After all the times Doodle had helped him. All the times Doodle had been a loyal friend. Stump never even said thank you. His eyes fill with tears.
Then he notices Doodle’s directional mechanism propped up on the snow. The pointer is spinning wildly.
He picks up the device, and it stops spinning. The hand points to the south, pointing the way to the cavern pass.
Stump sighs, wiping his tears, he mutters “I’d really rather see my friend.”
The device spins again, then stops abruptly, now pointing northeast.
“Doodle, you crafty little wizard!” Stump says.
Stump follows Doodle’s enchanted directional mechanism for an hour or better.
He finally steps out of the forest, to a valley of crystalline white. Rising from the center is an enormous ancient castle. The towers reach high into the gray winter clouds.
This the Vandahorne castle, in its former life it was home to a mighty warrior king. For years the Vandahorne family ruled from these halls, but their ghosts are all that remain. The Snow Witch is queen now.
Stump pulls his collar up against the wind. The artic chill is brutal.
“I’m coming, my friend.” he shivers and presses on.
The castle walls are formidable, built to repel a raiding army, but not a pint-sized man from the Hollow. Stump finds a drain tunnel and follows it into the castle.
He stays in the shadows, following the pointer, finally stepping into a massive ballroom. The stench of rot hangs in the air. The spatter of bone and blood covers the stone floor. This is a killing place.
Stump pauses in horror. The device spins wildly.
Worry sets in.
“Was he here?” He asks the mechanism, hoping Doodle had somehow enchanted it to speak.
Worry shifts to anger at the thought that his friend might have met his demise here.
“I swear Doodle, I will get vengeance. I will kill that witch,” Stump says, gritting his teeth.
“I’ll take her apart myself!” Stump says.
“Doodle, is that you? Where are you? Are you a ghost?” Stump asks.
“Stump, look up,” Doodle says.
Stump looks up. High above him, the ceiling is an uneven canopy of dangling black iron cages. Doodle peers over the edge of one such cage.
“Doodle!” Stump says “Thank the tree gods you’re alive. I wasn’t really sure how I was going to keep my promise. You know, about killing the witch and all.”
“Stump, listen. Each cage has its own locking peg set into the wall. Find the chain attached to my cage, pull out the peg, and it will let me down. The witch will hear the rattle, we will need to be quick.”
Stump climbs the wall until he reaches the peg holding Doodle’s cage. He pulls and pulls, but the peg won’t budge.
“Doodle, it won’t move,” Stump says.
“Try to wiggle it,” Doodle says.
“I have been.” Stump grunts, pulling on it again with all his might.
“Stump!” Doodle whispers “The witch is coming. Hide!”
The Snow Witch enters the ballroom. With each step, she spread intricate webs of frost on the bloodied stone floor. Her skin is fine alabaster, her body slender, her eyes are pale blue and her teeth are razor sharp.
Stump stays in the shadows as still as possible.
A beast, part man, mostly wolf, follows behind her. It sniffs the air.
“You smell it, don’t you?” the witch says.
She floats weightlessly from the floor, rising to where Doodle’s cage hangs. She smiles, her face is beautiful, but her teeth reveal her violent nature.
“You’re a curious little man, aren’t you? Where have you been hiding?” the witch asks, running her fingers along the edge of the cage.
“Are there more of your kind?” she asks.
“N-no, more…” Doodle shivers as her touch veins frost over the black iron enclosure.
The beast, below her, is in a frenzy, leaping, trying to reach the cage.
The witch unlocks Doodle’s cage and plucks the hat from his head.
“You know, my pet down there is quite the hunter.”
“He just needs the right scent to find the prey.” And with that, she drops Doodle’s hat to the floor.
The beast tears it into shreds. Its hysteria increasing, pacing in circles.
“He’ll find where you have been hiding.” She smiles.
Seeing the werewolf in such a state. Stump forms a plan. It is a ludicrous plan, but a plan nonetheless.
Before he can come to his senses, Stump sprints from his hiding place, up a chain to the first locking peg, screaming and waving his arms.
The witch and the werewolf stop in surprise. Doodle looks on in horror.
“Ah, so there are more of you.” the witch says with delight.
The beast is already so frenzied that it leaps at the wall. Stump barely has time to scamper higher as its claws scratch at the chains trying to catch the morsel it so desperately wants.
Stump continues higher, as the beast follows yanking peg after peg out of the wall in pursuit. The Iron cages start dropping to the floor, the impact sprays the dead and decomposing across the stone.
The witch shrieks at the beast, but it all happens too quickly to control it. The entire ballroom is now raining black iron and rotting flesh. Her rage sparks a blinding torrent of snow and wind, whipping and twisting. The remaining iron cages come unhinged and are flying and smashing against the walls. She is furious.
Doodle lands hard on the floor and rolls out of his cage. With the intensity of the blizzard, visibility is almost zero.
“STUUUUUMP!” Doodle screams over the violent wind. He can barely stand.
A hand touches his shoulder. It is Stump holding the directional mechanism.
“This way!” Stump screams.
Somewhere deep in the castle, minutes later.
The two stop to catch their breath. Stump holds up the enchanted mechanism, looking for the next move.
“Stump, we should have been outside already,” Doodle says anxiously.
“I didn’t ask the mechanism to take us outside, at least not yet. I asked it to find ale. I know it’s here somewhere,” Stump says.
“Are you mad? The witch is going to skin us alive, and you are looking for ale. You really are an idiot.” Doodle says.
“Give me the mechanism,” Doodle says angrily, holding his hand out.
“Doodle, trust me.”
“No, this is the last time I listen to you. We would already be safe and warm in Summer Valley if it wasn’t for you. Give me the mechanism.”
Stump hands the device to Doodle.
“Are you coming with me?” Doodle says.
“Doodle, I have a plan. Just listen …”
“To drink yourself silly? No, I’m done listening.” Doodle says and with that, he leaves.
Doodle slips outside the castle wall. He pauses, looking back, hoping to find Stump running up behind him, but there is nothing.
He stays low through the valley snow, working his way to the safety of the forest edge.
The night will close in soon, and the werewolf will be out in the moonlight. There isn’t much time to get deep into the woods and find a spot to hide.
Doodle stands contemplating the woods ahead of him. Should I go back? Stump came for me. I know he is difficult and lazy and infuriating, but he is my friend. It would be suicide to go back. No, he made his decision, but…
There is a faintly familiar sound.
Doodle turns to see Stump; he is screaming and running across the valley like his tail is on fire.
Panic sets in. Doodle isn’t sure if he should run, hide or stay extremely still. Stump only runs that fast when something bad is chasing him.
But nothing is behind him. The castle gate is closed, all is still. No sign of the wolf or the witch.
Doodle strains to hear, but Stump is still too far away to make out what he is yelling about.
What comes next can only be described as a thousand cannons firing in unison.
The castle walls blow wide open. Stone and flaming wood particles hurl out onto the valley. The massive towers crumble and plummet, smashing into the valley floor. The noise is deafening. Stump tumbles and rolls from the concussive force.
Doodle runs to find Stump buried in deep snow, laughing hysterically. Flaming timbers and hot coals are everywhere. Black smoke billows into the sky.
“What the devil just happened?” Doodle asks.
“I found it! Well, sort of.” Stump yells, his ears still ringing from the blast.
“What are you talking about?”
“Well, I was sure the bunnies had kegs of ale somewhere in that cursed place.” Stump says. “My plan was to start a fire, enough to create a diversion at least, to give us time to get away.”
“But I found something better. The fluffy idiots had placed barrels of ale on top of the biggest storehouse of cannon powder I have ever seen. Barrel after barrel just lined up.” Stump stands and wipes himself off. “Looks like old king Vandahorne liked to keep his friends close and his cannons closer.” Stump says.
“Stump, I don’t know what to say. I should have trusted you. I am so sorry,” Doodle says.
“No need. We’re friends, more like brothers, really. Through thick and thin, we stick together,” Stump says.
“Plus, I had time to down a quick pint of ale.” Stump grins.
And with that, the two head into the woods together to find the cavern pass and enjoy the winter in the warmth of Summer Valley.
The ruins of Vandahorne castle still smolder in the winter night air. The full moon reflects on the snow, fresh powder blankets the debris from the chaos, the valley is calm again; it appears all is right in the world.
Except for a faint sound, deep beneath the rubble, a very disturbing sound.
The angry sound of thrashing claws.