Deep in the hills of the eastern border of Lerata nestled the tiny village of Dorf. It was a self-contained little village, accustomed to having its own way in everything. It’s remoteness shielded it from the influence of kings, whether good or bad, and so Dorf felt very much like its own tiny world.
“Woe, Elroy,” Ronald called to his mule. The mule stopped patiently in front of the town’s main store. Ronald looped the lead rope over the hitching post and strode into the store, his bowed legs stamping out each step like a marching band.“You look mighty fresh for a man that’s come from out-of-town,” commented Tatum, owner of the general store, peering over the counter at the newcomer.
Ronald grinned. “Why, yes. Yes, I do. I set up camp last night only a couple miles away,” he said.
“Two miles? Why not come into the village last night then?”asked another man. He stood in the corner, leaning heavily against a barrel.Ronald grinned and rubbed his hands together. “I like to look fresh when I come in to sell my wares,” he explained.
The man in the corner, whose name was Barnes, laughed derisively. “We don’t need any outside goods,”he scoffed.“No, no, you don’t,” Ronald agreed. He had been coming to Dorf for nearly thirty years and he knew how to talk. “No, I have to admit that Dorf has the best of everything I’ve seen.”
Barnes and Tatum nodded.“In fact, you have such fine things that you could trade for anything you wanted,” Ronald commented, off-handedly, with an admiring look around the store.
Barnes stood up straight and tucked his thumbs in his pockets as he looked admiringly around the store, too.“Maybe some salt or fine cloth or a bit of ribbon,” Ronald suggested. “I’ve even brought some new items for you to look over.”
Tatum laughed and clapped Ronald Leen on the back. “You are a smooth talker, Ronald,” he said. “Bring your load in and let me see what you brought.”Ronald grinned again and did as the storekeeper said.
As he laid out his wares on the counter, Ronald asked, “How are things in Dorf?”“Same as usual. We are doing fine as long as that crazy inventor doesn’t kill us with one of his inventions,” Barnes said with a grin and a shake of his head.
“Grayson? Still at it, is he?” Ronald queried.“He has a notion that he will one day invent something that will have him named among the 'Greats.' But if he wants to go down in the history books, he needs to invent something that works,” said Tatum. He opened a drawer of ribbons and began sorting through the colors.
“It’s a fool notion that he’s got stuck in his head. Who wants to go down in the outsiders’ history books?” Barnes said with a snort. “That’s what made the crazy traitor disappear for 8 years – chasing some fool dream. As if Dorf wasn’t good enough for him!”“Does he still live at the outskirts of the village with his little girl or has he moved to the Rottly Place,” Ronald queried.
“The Rottly Place?” Tatum said, startled. He swung his head to stare at Ronald. “Why the Rottly Place? No one has lived there for over a century. It’s abandoned.”“That’s what I thought, too,” Ronald said with a shrug. “But I saw a bit of smoke there when I passed it yesterday. I figured Grayson was the only one crazy enough to be living there.”
“Must be a tramp,” Tatum mused.“Brave tramp,” Barnes said, idly winding a piece of ribbon around his finger. “Most folks think the place is haunted.”
“Keep your grubby paws off my ribbon unless you’re buying it,” Tatum growled, snatching the stray ribbon back into the drawer.The front door swung open, and a little old woman in a gray dress and bonnet came in, carrying a basket over her arm. She crossed the room to Barnes, pulling a handful of dusky-green leaves from her basket.
“Mr. Barnes, here are the herbs for your wife,” she said. “They must be boiled and made into a poultice. Have your wife use it three times a day.” She hesitated and looked timidly at Tatum. “If Mr. Tatum would be so good as to write the directions...”“No need, Mother Walt,” Barnes said. “I’m not much for reading or writing neither. I’ll remember them.”
Mother Walt beamed a smile then and handed a bunch of herbs to Mr. Barnes. Then she nodded benevolently at the other two men. “Have a good day now,” she said before she limped to the doorway and out into the street.The men turned to watch her go.
“For all her knowledge of herbs, she still suffers from those achy joints before a rain,” Tatum remarked. “Seems a pity.”“Uh-oh, here comes the crazy inventor’s daughter,” Barnes muttered.
Ronald shifted his eyes and beheld the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. From her rich wavy brown hair to her hazel-green eyes to her tiny feet, she was breathtaking.She pushed open the door of the general store and addressed the shopkeeper, “Salt and a bit of boot-black, if you please, Mr. Tatum.”
The girl then retreated to the back of the store to run her hands lovingly over the small collection of books. Ronald raised his eyebrows and let out a low whistle. “She’s grown up a bit since her papa returned to Dorf with his wee lass, hasn’t she,” he said in a low tone to his companions.“Nice girl…a little strange in her ideas…but exactly what you would expect from a daughter of Grayson’s. You can tell she wasn’t born here,” Tatum remarked, in the same low tone intended for his companions’ears only.
“Strange girl,” Barnes agreed. “Talks to her cat.”The girl in the back of the store felt, if she did not hear, the comments thrown around her. They were not new to her. Somehow she had known all her life that she both belonged and didn’t. Dorf was her life and she never expected to live elsewhere, but she knew the village would always give her a sideways glance. They would always say, “there is the crazy inventor’s daughter” and “here is that girl who wasn’t born here.” There was rarely any animosity in the glances, only a curiosity that never let her actually belong. She was used to it.
After a moment, she came to the counter to collect her order. Mr. Tatum packaged everything carefully.“Will you buy a book today?” he asked. Every week, she looked longingly at the books and every week she left without them. He was growing rather tired of it. It made him feel like a miser. “You know, the book on the end is half-price now,” he added casually.
Her eyes lit up with hope. Ronald whistled lowly again at the sight of them.“I will talk to Papa,” she said with a smile. She gathered her purchases and stopped by the books one more time before she headed out the door.
“You made her day,” Ronald commented, turning to watch her go.Tatum shook his head. “I feel sorry for her,” he said. “My wife hates her, you know, and I feel badly about it.”
“Why does your wife hate the inventor’s daughter?” Ronald wanted to know as he watched her disappear down the street.Tatum ducked his head to count ribbons again. “You’ll see in a minute,” he said, enigmatically.
The front door swung open again and in walked two young men. The contrast of these two men captured Ronald's curiosity. They made an unlikely pair.The first was a tall, broad-shouldered young man with thick, wavy black hair and stunning blue eyes. He strode into the general store with a bold, confident step and a commanding air. His face was tanned with the color of an outdoorsman, and Ronald felt that the young man quickly analyzed each man in the store with a practiced eye in spite of his youth.
The second was a short, dumpy-looking character with big elbows and crooked teeth. His pale, sallow face had a perpetually stupid look to it, and his thin, stringy blonde hair stuck out at odd angles. Every step showed what an awkward, clumsy fellow he was as he trotted along behind his predecessor.The tall young man glanced around the store. “Seen Belle?” he asked.
Barnes pointed down the street. “I think she is heading home to her papa,” he said. “She just left.”The tall young man gave him a grin and then dove out the door. The pale youth paused, looked at Barnes and Ronald, and pointed over his shoulder in the direction of Belle’s home. “We’re going to catch up with her,” he announced. Then he hurried toward the door, tripping over a set of garden tools on his way out.
When the door closed behind him, Barnes turned to Ronald with a proud grin. “That was Curt Hanson,” he said, as though the name itself should mean something.“And Willie,” Tatum added, almost as an afterthought.
“Curt is the best hunter in town,” Barnes said.“Curt Hanson has been blessed with an amazing athletic talent,” Tatum explained further. “He can outshoot, outrun, and outfight any man in the village. Quite a hero. He’s also undeniably the handsomest man in town, and he has half the girls swooning over him.” Tatum took several bolts of fabric from Ronald’s wares and tucked them onto a shelf behind his counter. “My wife hates him because she is convinced that he would be pursuing our Emma if it weren’t for Belle.”
“Emma is a pretty girl, too,” Barnes added, loyally.“And Emma was born here,” Tatum pointed out. “But most of the village forgets that. Nearly everyone expect Curt to marry the inventor’s daughter by next spring.”
“Odd companion that he had,” Ronald remarked. “You wouldn’t expect such a strapping young man to tolerate a bumbling idiot as a shadow.”“Oh, Willie--,” Tatum said, in a tone that was halfway between reproach and fondness. “–Willie adores his hero – probably wishes he could do everything Curt does. And Curt takes him everywhere.”
“What a contrast between them,” Ronald continued.“Willie makes Curt look even better, doesn’t he,” snickered Barnes.
Ronald nodded with a grin. Then he turned back to Tatum. “Well, I would give you all the latest gossip from the palace, but you wouldn’t care,” he said, rolling a piece of homemade Dorf lace around in his hand and calculating its value.Barnes stood up straight and shoved his thumbs into his pockets again. “Why would we want to hear about them?” he scoffed.
“The king leaves us alone and we leave him alone,” Tatum expounded. “That’s the way it’s always been.”“And the way it always will be,” finished Barnes, emphatically.
Ronald grinned again. That was one thing about Dorf –nothing ever changed.