Chapter One of Toadie and Gwen

Today’s post is a sample of my writing. Toadie and Gwen is a work in progress. Feedback is welcome and appreciated.

Chapter one

Toadie rolled up the legs of his pants as high as they’d go and put one foot into the stream. Cold as a puppy’s nose, the water licked his ankle and sent a shiver through him. He added his other foot and let out a whoop. The rocks were slick, painted with yellow moss and some kind of slime he’d never understood. But he stayed up as he inched his way across.

Gwen stood on the bank behind him and watched. His twin, she’d been called for as long as he could remember. But not for any similarities in appearance. Toadie looked like his people, dark haired, bronze skinned and brown eyed. But Gwen looked like no one else he’d ever seen, with her fair skin, blond hair and lavender eyes. She’d been named for it, for how pale her skin was, like the moon on a cloudless night.

She and Toadie were born at the exact same moment, eighteen years ago, and the village had dubbed them twins, though they were not related. And they couldn’t have been more different. Or more likely to be seen together, despite their differences. Or maybe because of them.

Toadie looked back at Gwen to make sure she was still close. She wore a dress, the silly girl, like she didn’t know she’d end up butt-first in the water before she got across. He held out his hand to her, but she shook her head. That’s why she’d end up butt-first. That, and a tendency to giggle at anything cold.

Toadie was halfway across when he heard it. Giggle. Squeal. Splash. Always the same. He went back and pulled her to her feet. “Don’t know what’s so funny about cold water,” he said.

“It tickles, Toadie.”

He shook his head and pulled her along behind him. He could just say the word tickle, and she’d knock herself down trying to flee, along with anyone else who got in the way.

Her fingers were icicles in his hand after their dunking, so she twisted them around every which way to steal his warmth. Shameless. Even with the summer sun straight overhead she couldn’t warm her own skin. Toadie saw a fish twitching around in a rock bed and pointed it out to her.

“Can you get it for me?” she asked.

He squeezed his lips together. She’d cry for sure if he said what he was thinking. But how the heck was he supposed to carry a fish? If Gwen ever got loose alone in the wilderness, she’d be dead in ten minutes. He loosened his lips enough to smile at her. “Maybe on the way back if it’s still there.”

He helped her onto the bank and bent down to unroll his pants. She started to walk away before he was done, so he snatched her sleeve and pulled her back. She liked it when he did that, though she tried to pretend she didn’t. If he let her get too far from him she’d come back on her own, but then she’d pout for the rest of the day.

She sat down in a sunny spot and fanned her dress in the air.

“You can’t sit down now,” Toadie told her. “We’re not even halfway there.”

“But I’m wet.”

“You’ll dry off faster if you’re moving.”

She made a show of trying to get up, so he helped her. She smiled up at him. “What will you ask her today?”

He shrugged.

“I know what I’m asking,” she said.

“So do I. And she’ll tell you what she says every time. I don’t know. I don’t see those things.” He led her up the bank and into the trees. “Why don’t you ask something new this time?”

“It’s what I want to know.”

Toadie gave up. She could ask what she wanted, even if she would pout all the way home. His hand found its way to his pouch. He checked that it was still there every so often without realizing it. “Did you bring a gift?”

She stopped dead. “Oh, no!”

“You forgot?” He turned around. “How did you forget?”

“I didn’t. It’s just gone. It must have fallen in the stream.” She turned back.

“It won’t be there now, Gwen. We’ll have to find something on the way.”

Her eyes brightened. He’d brought her back from the brink of tears. “What can we find?” she asked.

“Mushrooms maybe. She likes them.”

“Oh, I love gathering mushrooms!”

“Have you ever done it before?”

“Well, no. But I love it.” She smiled. She shook her dress out and ran her hands over it, and her fingers caught on something—a stick. She pulled it off and held it up. “Is this one of those sticks that can start a fire?” she asked.

Toadie gaped at her. “Are you talking about a match?”

She gave him an exasperated look. “No, Silly.  Matches don’t come from trees. If they did, don’t you think every forest in the world would have burned down by now?”

Toadie couldn’t think of a single thing to say to that. Gwen pranced right past him in the wrong direction, and he had to pull her back again.

He knew a good spot for gathering mushrooms, but it was out of the way. He might be able to find some along the path, but if he didn’t, they’d have a long walk back. Either way, getting a gift for Gwen was going to cost them time. He looked up at the sun and judged it was almost noon. Twelve hours left, but only eight in the light.

He turned back to ask Gwen which way she’d prefer to go, but she wasn’t there. “Gwen?” It wasn’t like her to wander off, and she’d never played a prank in her life. “Gwen!” He tried to remember if she’d made any sounds while he was thinking, but he just didn’t know. So he searched the ground for a sign of which way she’d gone.

It didn’t take long for him to pick up her trail. A squashed section of moss here, a broken twig there. She was headed toward the creek again, only on higher ground. Upstream from where they’d crossed, not the direction her gift would have traveled, but she might not know that. Toadie heard the rushing water up ahead, so he ran. And he found her.

His heart jumped right into his throat. He almost yelled her name before he thought better of it.

Best not to frighten her.

So he spoke softly. “Gwen. Don’t move.” She didn’t seem to hear him. She stood on a fallen log high above the water. Above rocks and rapids. Her arms were at her sides, not raised as they should be to help her balance. She lacked even the most basic survival instincts. He couldn’t call to her without risking startling her and making her fall. So that left one choice.

He stepped out onto the log. It was old, and it wanted to crumble under his weight. It didn’t seem to mind Gwen’s lighter frame, but the two of them together might be too much. He examined it closely. Tiny holes, signs of insects having bored inside to enjoy the feast. He had to assume it was at least partly hollow. Yelling at Gwen was starting to sound like a better idea.

But she hadn’t moved since he first found her. And that was not like Gwen at all. He couldn’t see her face, but he could almost imagine her eyes were closed. Sleep was the only time when she did or said nothing, and even then it wasn’t always so. More than once he’d seen her wake herself with a giggle. But of course, she wasn’t sleeping, not standing upright in such an odd place. Was she?

He took a tentative step toward her and heard the sound of softened wood crunching. Gwen was still ten feet away. He looked down and tried to line her up with what was underneath. Could she possibly survive if they fell? No. There were jagged rocks exactly under her, as if she’d chosen the spot that would give him the most grief. Or had she stopped for another reason? He looked past her feet to examine the log just in front of where she stood.

What he saw erased any idea he had of reaching her and pulling her back. The log was not hollow, but he could see inside it. A chunk had been knocked away, and what was left looked like it could be carved by a spoon. How was she not breaking it? He certainly would if he joined her. He inched backward until he reached moist earth again. And he felt helpless, truly helpless, for the first time in his life.

He stood so still and thought so hard that the first sound he heard startled him. Only a bird, but it snapped him out of his thoughts. And it did the same for Gwen, apparently, because her right foot lifted and moved as if to step where the soft center of the log was exposed. Toadie yelled before he could stop himself, and Gwen froze with her foot just above the gap. The bird called again, and she put her foot into it.

Then Toadie understood, though it was a stupid thing to understand. Gwen was following a bird. Maybe to her death. But that gave Toadie an idea. He was good at bird calls. He didn’t recognize the one Gwen was following, but he was sure he could duplicate the sound. He threw back his head and let out the warbly screech, and the bird answered immediately, maybe angrily. Gwen twitched, as if she didn’t know which way to go. Could it work?

He did the call again, and when the bird tried to answer, he repeated the call loudly. He expected Gwen to back up, but she whirled around and scanned the trees with wild eyes. Toadie was right there at eye level with her, but she didn’t even glance at him. He screeched again. And again. And Gwen took slow steps toward him, never looking down, never taking her eyes from the highest branches in search of her bird.

The real bird called out behind her, but Toadie was louder and more insistent, so he kept her moving in his direction. In his mind, something else was happening. A different battle, where on one side of his consciousness he was out-crying a bird, and on the other, he knew just how silly such a notion was. But this was Gwen, and if he’d learned anything in his eighteen years, it was that anything was possible with Gwen. Anything but a normal day. Not one since the day they were born.

As soon as Gwen was in reach, Toadie grabbed her, and not gently. All the fear that had been simmering unacknowledged inside him turned to anger, and he tucked her under his arm and carried her far from the log. Far enough not to hear the water or the bird, and far enough to work some of the heat out before he set her down and freed up his hands. There was still enough fire left to force him to hold his arms at his sides until he could convince himself not to take any of it out on Gwen.

She blinked at him, confused and startled by his frown. “Toadie?”

He shook his head. The words that wanted to come out were the kind that brought tears, and he had no skill at stopping them once they’d started. Best to just keep his mouth shut and his hands to himself until his heart took up residence in his chest again. And until the idea of taking a switch from the nearest tree and chasing her all the way home with it stopped seeming so appropriate. It didn’t take long. Gwen had figured out years ago that the best thing to do when Toadie was angry was to stand and blink at him.

Being mad at Gwen was like being mad at a kitten. It could only last as long as the mischief lasted, because the cuteness was overwhelming. And the innocence. And Gwen had that wide-eyed innocent stare down after so many years of practice. It worked on Toadie, even if it didn’t work on her father. He felt himself cooling off, so he relaxed his arms and even managed a small smile.

“What did I do this time?” Gwen asked, aware of his softened stance. It was what she always asked, but this time Toadie was surprised by it. Surely she wasn’t that clueless.

“Do I really have to say?”

She looked genuinely perplexed. “Is it what I said about matches?”

“Matches? Why on Earth would it be about matches?” The heat was rising again. The least she could do is acknowledge what she’d done!

She sensed his anger and took a step back from him. But there was not so much as a flicker of recognition in her round eyes. She didn’t know what she’d done. Or didn’t remember. Toadie rolled his shoulders and shook off the urge to clobber her. Maybe someone else needed clobbering. “Do you remember the log?” he asked.

“What log?”

“You’re not playing a trick on me?”

Her brow drew down. “No, Toadie.” She made that sound like a plea, and Toadie couldn’t refuse it. He never could.

“It’s okay,” he said. “Whatever it was, it wasn’t your fault.”

He held out his hand, and Gwen rushed to him. Her arms clamped around his waist, and he patted her back. But his eyes were on the forest now, searching for the trickster, for anyone cold enough to put Gwen in danger. He wished he’d brought his bow, but since he hadn’t intended to hunt today, it was sitting unstrung in his kitchen. He pulled out the only thing he had that would pass for a weapon. His knife, which would be useless against a bird but might be perfect for a person controlling one.

When Gwen stepped back and faced him again, her eyes were back to their regular size, which was still a bit wider than anyone else’s. She wouldn’t ask about the log or question why Toadie had been angry with her. It was always enough that he was happy again. So he gave her his best smile and a tweak to her chin for good measure and led her back to the path they had been on earlier. But he kept his eyes on her, and when she lagged behind a bit, he told her to hold his belt loop, a thing she loved to do.

Toadie was so intent on getting Gwen safely to the cave he almost forgot she still needed a gift. He checked the sun again. They’d lost at least an hour to the mystery bird, and they were on the wrong part of the path for mushrooms. He’d gone the sunniest way possible in his attempt to watch the woods. But there was no use going without a gift. So he turned right around and headed into the thickest trees he could find.

It was a part of the woods he’d never explored, but there were ferns and thick mossy patches, and that led him deeper. Wetter ground, shadier corners, a stand of Pines. He was on the right track. His eyes fell on a fallen tree, and he pulled Gwen toward it. He could already see the mushrooms as he neared the tree, but he would let Gwen find them. It meant more that way.

“Search for something spongy,” he said, pulling her finger from his belt loop. “She likes them ugly.”

Gwen dove right in and looked so wrong doing it, it almost made Toadie chuckle. In that boggy place with so little light and color, she was like a lantern on a foggy night. The only thing he could see. But she ran her fingers through the decomposing leaves and bark, upsetting lizards and even a snake once, without any hint of fear. She moved all around the mushrooms without seeing them, and Toadie’s sense of dread mounted. Something would bite her eventually, the wrong thing no doubt, and he’d have to suck the venom from her fingers.

It wouldn’t be the first time, but she’d treat it as if it were. Because even after being bitten, Gwen would be tickled by his lips around her skin. Sometimes he wondered if she sought out an attack for the pleasure of it. But even Gwen couldn’t be that silly. Could she?

Her squeal jarred him out of his thoughts. He was already searching her fingers for the bite before he realized he had moved. But there was no bite. She had a fistful of mushrooms and a glorious smile on her face that only a personal success could bring.

“Are they the right ones?” she asked.

“Yes. You did good.”

She dumped them into his palm. “You carry them so I won’t lose them.”

He couldn’t put them in the pouch with his gift, so he put them in his pocket. “Back on my belt loop,” he told Gwen, and her finger darted through the hole and formed a hook. Toadie looked to the sky again. “Almost two,” he said. “We need to pick up the pace.”

He worked his way back to the path, tossing the knife in quick circles, catching the tip and then the handle and back again. Not because it was fun, or even to show off for Gwen, but because he couldn’t decide which way to hold it. One to stab, the other to throw. And he didn’t know who or what might jump out at them.

He could think of only one person who could control a bird or put Gwen in a trance, and that thought nearly turned him around for home. But the opportunity only came once a year, and even if he was marching right toward the trickster herself, he couldn’t pass it up. Not for himself, and especially not for Gwen. Gwen, who was now singing a song about elves who liked to steal mushrooms and toads from unsuspecting forest wanderers. His hand drifted to his pouch.

“Are you making that up?” he asked, glancing at Gwen over his shoulder. Her giggle was answer enough. “How do you make it rhyme?”

“It’s easy,” she trilled. “How do you twirl the knife without looking?”

He caught the knife by the tip and turned back around. He didn’t toss it anymore. Gwen’s song had changed to a story about a man who juggled knives to win the hearts of pretty girls, and Toadie hoped the man in the story wasn’t supposed to be him. Who would suppose juggling knives would attract a girl anyway? Let alone the gaggle of them in Gwen’s story. Really, the girl had a wild imagination.

She sang them back to the trail and over the first rise and even through the thickest grove of Ash and didn’t fall silent until they came to her least favorite part of the journey.

“It’s okay,” Toadie told her. “I’ll let you ride on my back. And remember there’s a spring just on the other side.”

“Isn’t there a way around it?”

She asked that every year, and every year the answer was the same. “Cliffs on both sides, Gwen. It’s gotta be done.”

It wasn’t dangerous, really. Not for Toadie with his good balance. But it smelled terrible. The green mud bubbled and spewed fumes into the air, and it made anything he’d eaten that day try to come back up his throat. He could try breathing through his mouth for a while, but eventually it coated his tongue if he did it. Tasting it was worse than smelling it.

Toadie pulled out two hankies and wrapped one around Gwen’s mouth and nose. Then he applied his own and helped her onto his back. She rested her chin on his shoulder, which jabbed a bit. But he didn’t complain. He had to concentrate to stay on the stone walkway through the muck. Gwen was a good rider. She hooked her feet together around his waist and never clamped his arms down, knowing he’d need them if he wavered.

The bog was long and wide, by far the longest stretch any one feature of the journey would take up on its own, and it sapped even the most pleasant thoughts. It didn’t belong there, halfway up the mountain where the air should be crisp and clean. Toadie suspected it wasn’t natural at all, but part of the magic that protected the cave from curious eyes. A thick green cloud billowed up just in front of him, and he had to stop and hold his breath. Gwen’s stomach stopped moving against his back.

They both gasped when the cloud dissipated, which took longer than either of them could have hoped. Gwen wouldn’t speak while they were there, not without an emergency, but she’d developed a language all her own. She rubbed his cheek, and that meant keep moving. So he stepped to the next stone, which required him to put his foot into the sticky film that coated the stone after the latest eruption. It was hot and about as nasty as anything could be. But he was onto the next stone before he had time to fret over it.

Gwen sighed, a soft sound made even softer by the cloth over her mouth, and Toadie knew it was a sigh of gratitude. She’d stepped in the grime a few times, and it did worse things to her sensitive skin than it would to his. One year she had come wearing shoes, but that had ended worse than any other year. She wasn’t used to wearing them, and it had resulted in a tumble into the stuff. Shoes had never again been part of the journey.

Toadie caught sight of his shadow slanting across the stones and realized he’d lost more time than he could afford to. If he was going to get Gwen back home before dark, he would need to get a move on. So he did a thing he’d never done before. He charged across the rest of the bog, heedless of where he put his feet, and only stopping when the bursts were large enough to reach Gwen’s feet, which hung somewhere around his knees.

The result of his speed was a happy Gwen and a thick coating of slime on his legs from his feet up to the middle of his calves. He put Gwen down and headed for the spring as fast as he could go, collecting grass, leaves and bugs on his sticky flesh. Gwen found a boulder, the one she always sat on, and dangled her clean toes in the unnaturally warm water while Toadie pulled out his pack of salt and started to work cleaning himself off. Already the mud was hardening into glue that tried to claim bits of his skin as he scrubbed. But the green skin was soon replaced by pink, raw but cleaner than it had been in weeks.

“You have very nice calves,” Gwen said, and Toadie yanked his pant legs down to hide them. What a thing to say! He never said anything about her calves, and he’d had a mind to more than once. But it wasn’t proper. She should know that. But she was Gwen. And Gwen knew only what she saw, and even that was wrong more often than not. He wondered if she was wrong about his legs, but only long enough for his cheeks to burn.

“Come on down from there,” he said, reaching up to catch her. “We have to hurry.”

She leapt from her perch with no concern for where her feet would land, because of course, they would land in the air, which they did. And Toadie set her on the ground and offered her his hip so she’d hook the loop that would put her beside him, not behind him. The next part of the journey would be simple and difficult at the same time—a climb up steps chiseled into the side of the mountain. Steps you’d never find unless you knew where to look.

It was a trip straight up, which was one of the reasons it was traveled only by the young and fit. Toadie let Gwen go up first. He stayed very close behind her for two reasons. First, so that he could catch her if she fell. And second, to avoid seeing up her dress, which she seemed not to know was a possibility. She was in good shape, but even for her, it was taxing. She stopped to rest more often than Toadie would have liked, but he didn’t complain. He just waited, shifting his weight from one leg to the other.

Once they climbed higher than the tallest trees, the sun hit them full force. Gwen’s dress, which had long since dried from its dunking in the stream, began to show signs of the moisture being drawn out of her. Her breathing became labored, and her legs shook. Toadie prepared himself to catch her, but she didn’t fall.

“Why don’t you stop for a second?” he said, and she made a sound of disgust. One of the many things that confused him about her was this peculiar twist. She didn’t mind being weak when it was a choice. She even played it up a bit for attention, he was sure. But when real weakness reared its ugly head, she fought it. She wouldn’t stop if she thought Toadie was insinuating she needed to. So he put a different spin on it.

“I’m tired, Gwen. Please stop.”

Her feet quit moving, and she let a sigh escape. Toadie unhooked his canteen from his belt and handed it to her, and she took the first drink without arguing. But she left him enough and handed it back. He drank it down to half full and hung it back on his belt. She couldn’t see him without twisting enough to risk falling, so he didn’t bother to look relieved.

She started moving again after only a couple minutes, but Toadie didn’t stop her. They really did need to hurry. He was sure her legs were going to give out before they reached the top, but she made it, if barely. She collapsed on the ledge and waited for Toadie to join her, so he sat down beside her and breathed a bit more heavily than he needed to. Another drink, another couple minutes of rest, and they were on their way again.

The rest of the journey was an easy walk around the side of the mountain. The path was too narrow for them to walk side by side, so Toadie took the lead. But it frightened him, not seeing Gwen or even hearing her, so he switched places with her and watched her back. She trailed her fingers along the side of the mountain, which Toadie encouraged, because it kept her close to the mountain and far from the cliff. But more than once, she let her fingers slip inside a crevice as she passed, heedless of what might be lurking inside.

“Look where you’re putting your hand,” Toadie said. “Snakes sometimes live in holes like that. And lizards that bite.”

But she didn’t stop doing it, though she tried for a few minutes. It simply wasn’t in her nature to pay attention. Or to learn from her mistakes, apparently, because the first bite she’d ever received had come from something inside one of those very holes. Toadie had never even seen what bit her that time, because it had disappeared into the dark recess. He’d sucked on it just the same. You could never be too cautious.

Toadie started tapping on the mountainside with his knife, warning any critters living inside to step back. It must have worked, too, because nothing bit her. She stopped outside the entrance to the cave and let Toadie go ahead of her.

He peered into the darkness and called out the required words, attempting to keep his annoyance with the formality out of his voice. “Bearing gifts we have come on this, the day of our birth.”

A pair of yellow eyes appeared. “What do you seek?”

“Wisdom,” Toadie said. “As only you can provide.”

The torches lit, and she became visible, a hunched creature with sallow skin and long black hair. The Oracle. She shuffled toward them, and with a wave of her hand, bid them come closer. “Is it July already?” she asked.

“July twenty-fifth,” Toadie told her.

“Yes. I suppose it is,” the Oracle said. “Theodore and Gwendolyn. What have you brought me?” She always called him Theodore, though she was the only one who ever did. It puzzled Toadie, since she was also the one who had given him his nickname. But he never asked why. It wasn’t a good question.

Toadie pulled out the mushrooms and gave them to Gwen. Then he took his pouch from his belt and opened it. He took out his gift and placed it in the Oracle’s outstretched hand.

“A toad,” she said. “And just in time, too.” The toad disappeared into a pocket on her cloak, and she held her hand out to Gwen. Gwen gave her the mushrooms. “Morels,” the Oracle said. She smelled them. “I have need of these often. Your gifts are sufficient. Come inside.”


~ by Rachel McMahon on December 20, 2012.

2 Responses to “Chapter One of Toadie and Gwen”

  1. this is amazing, I want to keep reading, and I come to the end, not fair

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