Cold drizzle settles from gray skies, falling into the ancient forest. The heavy mist swirls and flows around Doodle and Stump, two pint-sized, bearded men traveling the wooded path.
“Ding dong, the witch is dead,” Stump sings in a jolly, out-of-tune manner.
“Keep it down,” Doodle says, “the forest has ears.”
“You really should stop worrying,” Stump replies. “The Snow Witch is dead.”
“We don’t know that,” Doodle says, pulling his collar up. “She was a powerful enchantress. It would be wise to be cautious.”
“Look around us,” Stump says, holding his hands wide. “Two days ago, snow and bitter winds ruled the forest. Yet now, spring is returning.”
“I want to get to the warmth of Sun Valley and just put this all behind us,” Doodle replies.
“I want a comfortable bed and a proper meal,” Stump says. “We’ve been traveling for days in this miserable rain.”
Doodle holds up a small mechanism, a circle with a clock hand. It is an enchanted device, designed to point the bearer to whatever they ask.
“I agree, I would enjoy a warm meal as well,” Doodle replies, “maybe we can find lodging for one night.”
“And a mug of ale.” Stump adds.
“Find us food and lodging,” Doodle asks the device, ignoring Stump’s request for ale.
The mechanism spins for a moment, then stops to point west.
After some time, the two arrive at a small clearing far from the wooded path.
Light streams through the trees to highlight a cottage painted in swirls of pink and white. A simple picket fence lines the front yard. The rain seems to have missed this patch of woods. Everything is pristine.
Doodle checks his device. It still points west.
“Let’s keep moving,” Doodle whispers. “My device isn’t spinning. It always spins when it reaches its destination.”
“What harm is there in looking?” Stump says, with that familiar reckless smile.
“I don’t know, maybe death?” Doodle counters.
“Nonsense. You stay here, I’ll take a look,” Stump says as he hops the fence. He spies into windows, then rattles the front door handle, and it opens. He motions for Doodle to follow as he disappears inside.
“Stump?” Doodle whispers as loudly as he can.
He waits for several moments. Worry settles in. Several more moments pass. His mind churns with the horror that has probably befallen Stump from this foolhardy trespass.
“Hey!” Stump yells from the doorway, startling Doodle. “It looks abandoned. Come on.”
Doodle opens the gate and follows. He has that worried feeling that often precedes any plan Stump has concocted.
Inside there is an alluring scent of honey and butter. The cottage seems much larger than it appears from the outside. Several rooms line a hallway, each with a child’s bed neatly prepared. They are the perfect size for men from the Hollow.
“Isn’t this lovely? Look at the size of that oven,” Stump says. “I’ll look around for some firewood.”
The walls are a coarse brown texture, occasionally interrupted by more swirls of vibrant color.
Doodle runs his finger along the surface. He smells it and then licks it.
“The walls taste sweet.”
Stump licks the door frame. His eyes light up.
“It’s gingerbread! I love gingerbread,” he squeals as he breaks off several pieces and shoves them into his mouth.
“We should go, this is an evil place,” Doodle says, his worried look returning.
“I’ve never met a gingerbread that was anything but agreeable,” Stump says with a smirk.
“No, the old witch who lived here. She would ensnare children with enchanted gingerbread to make them sleepy, plump, and then she cooked them for dinner,” Doodle recounts.
“Everyone knows the legend, Doodle, but she’s dead. What’s the worst that could happen?” Stump throws a couple of logs into the furnace. “So we wake up a little plumper. We could use some fat on our bones.”
“I’m not staying, the enchantments here are old,” Doodle says. “Magic becomes a mischievous child when left unattended.”
Doodle puts his shoes and coat on. They are wet, cold, and very uninviting, but the unknown is far more uncomfortable to him.
“Look what I found,” Stump says, waving a book in the air. “It looks like the old witch kept a journal of her magic. I bet there are years of perfected spells hidden in these pages.”
Stump grins, knowing he now has the upper hand. Doodle can’t resist a book, especially a book about magic.
Doodle’s eyes grow wide. “Let me see that,”
“Nope,” Stumps says, “not unless you promise to stay here tonight.”
The debate continues and truth be told, a little wrestling too. Finally, Doodle concedes to the arrangement and claims his prize.
The two fill the night with gingerbread, frosting, and the usual banter. As the late hour approaches, they each choose a room and settle into a cozy bed. It has been several arduous days following the wooded path. Stump is asleep in moments. Doodle reads as much of the spellbook as his heavy eyes will allow, but it isn’t long before the cottage is a symphony of snoring.
Morning breaks with the cheerful sound of birds. The cottage is still warm from the embers in the great oven.
The two pint-size men from the Hollow wake to a new day. Sleep was deep and fulfilling.
The cozy beds are hard to leave. Not because they’re comfortable, but because overnight Stump and Doodle have grown to obese proportions. Their clothes have split and torn from the expanse.
Stump tries to move, but he is finding it difficult to even rollover.
“Doodle,” he yells, “I’m much more than plump, I’m huge.”
“I warned you that something bad would happen,” Doodle yells from the opposite room.
Stump swings and rolls and swings more, trying to get his feet on the floor. He is almost there when his bed crumbles under the weight, sending him tumbling.
“Are you OK?” Doodle calls out.
“No,” Stump says dryly, “I’m face-down on the floor, I’m without clothes, and worse yet, I think I’m getting bigger. Isn’t there a counter-spell?”
“I can’t reach the book,” Doodle responds.
“You must remember something from last night?”
“I’m not a wizard,” Doodle huffs. “It took me many tries to enchant my directional mechanism. How am I to fix this?”
“I believe in you, Doodle. You can do this. Plus, it’s getting harder to breathe, so hurry.”
Doodle groans in frustration.
“We’re going to die. This is the end,” he mumbles.
He takes a deep breath and with the best magical gestures his bloated fingers can sign; he performs a transforming spell from the book.
At least he hopes that’s what it is.
“Return to normal, that which has grown.”
“Transform these piglets, their flesh and bone.”
“I can’t see anymore my cheeks are too fat,” Stump sputters through puckered lips.
All is silent as the two grow so enormous they can’t even move their mouths.
Then the most amazing thing happens.
A magically wonderful thing.
“Doodle, what did you do?” Stump asks in a very annoyed tone.
“Me? This was your fault,” Doodle responds angrily. “I just tried to fix it.”
“By changing me into a pig?” Stump replies. “Get the book, change us back.”
“I need fingers to perform an enchantment,” Doodle replies. “We’re going to have to wait this out and hope it wears off.”
Later that day.
“This isn’t wearing off,” Stump grumbles.
“You’ve said that like a hundred times,” Doodle replies. “Maybe if we find some bitter-root and spotted mushrooms, I can try to grind a potion.”
The two leave the cottage and trek into the woods, looking for anything that could help.
Doodle catches the scent of sage and thyme. “Follow me, I smell herbs,” he says. “They are great for…”
An arrow zips past them and embeds itself deep into a nearby tree.
They look at each other and squeal. They hadn’t squealed since becoming pigs, but it seemed like the natural thing to do.
Another arrow grazes Stump’s ear.
They drop to all fours and run, squealing all the way.
Arrows fly past them as they dart through the forest, bounding and ducking to escape the onslaught.
They come upon a grove, a solid clearing. This is their chance to gain ground. They sprint with everything their piglet legs will give them.
Steeped in panic, they fail to notice the snare hidden below the leaves, it yanks them violently up into a tree and then settles them down into the bottom of a large net.
This was all a trap.
After several moments a young elf climbs down from a high branch, she moves with the agility that most elves do.
“You two are quite fast for piglets,” she says. “I almost lost you in the woods.”
“Maybe you’re just a terrible hunter,” Stump says in retort.
“You speak?” the elf says, putting arrows back into her sheath.
“Of course we speak,” Stump replies. “We’re not pigs, we are folk from the Hollow. This is all a terrible mistake.”
“I’m sure if I was a talking pig I would say I was an elf from the wildwoods,” the girl giggles.
“Listen, elf, have you heard of the Snow Witch?” Stump says.
“Aye, I heard a giant killed her and smashed her castle into rubble. Seems it might be true with the weather looking more like spring.”
“Stump, don’t,” Doodle whispers.
Stump’s face, even as a pig, shows an ire he can’t contain.
“I killed the Snow Witch. It was me, I blew her to bits,” Stump exclaims, “not some giant, me, Stump J. Waddle from the Hollow.”
“You?” the girl says, once again with a giggle. “And here you are the great witch-hunter, captured in my snare.”
“I think you’re just a fancy pig who doesn’t want to become pork pie.”
The grove darkens quietly as tree branches extend and interlock in the slightest way, almost unnoticeable.
“I killed her and her wolf, I destroyed Vandahorne castle, the hunter bunnies, everything,” Stump says, struggling to adjust his position to display his best angry face.
“The piglet who killed the Snow Witch,” the elf replies sarcastically. “Sounds like a bedtime fable told to children.”
“Are you daft? I told you I’m not a pig,” stump replies angrily.
“Hey!” Doodle interrupts. “Is it just me or is the grove moving?”
It’s clear the trees are drawing closer, more quickly now. The sky has turned to a canopy of tangled branches.
The elf draws her bow, circling, unsure of what to aim at as shadows overtake the light.
The tree holding Doodle and Stump convulses violently as if possessed. Roots snake and writhe from the ground carrying mold, mud, and rotting wood, forming into a hideous creature. This is a forest demon. The pungent form turns black. The only light in the abomination is its glowing eyes.
Doodle and Stump squirm in desperation, trying to break free from the snare. The elf’s arrow flies straight into the heart of the demon, tearing a hole through loose moss and roots in its chest, but having no effect.
“Witch Hunter,” the demon utters. The sound of its voice surrounds the grove as if the trees were all echoing the same.
“You must restore the balance,” the demon continues “Without winter, Mother cannot rest. She will grow weary and the land will die.”
“You must restore the balance,” it repeats.
“H-how do I do this?” Stump says. His voice quivers as the demon draws closer.
“Go to the mountain, where the winter soul sleeps. Release her from her enchantment. Restore her to her rightful place.”
"W-why me?” Stump asks. “Surely there is someone more qualified. Really, the whole thing with the witch and the castle. I just got lucky. I’m not a hunter of anything.”
“Only the champion who killed the witch can release the winter soul,” the demon replies.
“Go to the mountain or all will die.”
With that, the demon utters a phrase in an ancient dialect.
The bark, roots, and moss that made up the demon’s body drop to the forest floor. The grove of trees untangles, revealing the gray sky, and Doodle and Stump find themselves as men again, naked and dangling in the snare.
“You really are the witch hunter,” the elf says excitedly, cutting the two down from the net.
“I guess I am,” Stump replies, standing covering his privates. “Could you spare a piece of cloth?”
“For me too?” Doodle chimes in.
“I’m Erela. My clan lives in the wildwoods. You must come and tell us how you bested the Snow Witch.”
“Ok, sounds wonderful, but again, any cloth?” Stump asks.
Ayire Village, somewhere deep in the Wildwoods.
The entire elf clan gathers to hear the exploits of a pint-sized man who killed the witch and the wolf. They hang on every word.
Doodle smiles listening to Stump embellish their adventure in great detail. It feels good to be whole again. They have clothes, their bellies are full and they are but a day away from the warmth of summer valley.
The night wanes and the two retire for the evening.
“We need to get an early start,” Stump says, lying back in his bed.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Doodle responds, happy that life will finally be back to normal.
“We can make it to the mountain by midday, release the winter soul from her enchantment and be back by supper,” Stump continues.
“You can’t be serious?” Doodle reacts, sitting up in his bed. “We are so close to the cavern bridge, we can join the rest of the Hollow Folk in the valley by late tomorrow. Haven’t you had enough?”
“But the demon said it was dire ...” Stump starts.
“Demons are notorious liars,” Doodle spits. “There is a reason they trapped the winter soul in an enchantment. For all you know, you could release eternal winter on us all.”
“You’re probably right,” Stump says quietly, and with that, he rolls over for the night.
Doodle lies awake listening to Stump mumble and snore. He usually has a book to fill his thoughts until drowsiness sets in. Tonight he lies awake pondering everything that has transpired in this journey. He and Stump have had many adventures together, none the likes of this one.
Before dawn, he finally nods off.
The last day of the journey.
Doodle wakes late. Surprised that the sun is already high, he climbs out of bed to find a note set up on Stump’s pillow.
Unfolded, it reads:
I’ve gone to the mountain.
My heart says this is the right thing to do. I have to restore winter to the world. This is what my whole life has led to. Something heroic, something I can be proud of.
Don’t worry, I will meet you in the valley the day after tomorrow.
Stump J. Waddle
Doodle sits in silence. He knows the odds are Stump won’t meet him in the valley. Stump has once again set out without a plan, with all the confidence that he will find his way using only his intuition.
“Erela!” Doodle calls out as he runs into the center of the village.
“What is it Mr. Peep,” Erela replies, yawning stepping out of a small bungalow.
“Stump is traveling to the mountain.” Doodle has worry in his eyes.
“Isn’t that his destiny as the witch hunter?”
“No, I have a terrible feeling about this. I need to find him. Could we track him?”
“If he was a giant maybe, but the wildwoods are thick, we could search for days and still never find him.”
“Actually, we can,” Doodle says. “Can you lead me back to the gingerbread cottage? I left something there that can help.”
Later that morning in the ancient forest.
The two enter the clearing. The light once again shines on the gingerbread cottage, but something is wrong.
The picket fence lies in pieces, the cottage lacerated and broken, there are scratches on the oven and the beds gutted, feathers pulled like entrails from each mattress.
This was an act of visceral rage.
“Mr. Peep,” Erela whispers, taking an arrow from her sheath, “what happened?”
“Something survived Vandahorne castle. It probably tracked us here but lost us when we became pigs.”
Doodle digs through the rubble and finds his enchanted directional mechanism.
“I need to find Stump and get us to the safety of Summer Valley. The wildwoods may be difficult to track in, but if I know Stump, he will do something boisterous to make it easier.”
As Doodle is leaving, he finds the witch’s old spellbook still intact. He takes it and the two leave the clearing with haste, traveling back a different way than they came.
Hey, if you got this far, I whole heartily thank you for sticking with Doodle and Stump! I am working on part 3, which will be the finale of this saga. Stump is off to complete his destiny, but something nasty is following him, and he has no clue!
I also wanted to mention, I am a big fan of traditional fairy tales, especially from the Grimm brothers. I realize I took some liberties with the Hansel and Gretel tale here. I retold it with slight changes, hopefully, that doesn’t offend the purists. :)