They docked on the eastern bank. Edward jumped out and started taking care of his family's business, a Tanner to the bone. Robin watched him checking in with the toad-leather merchants and thought, I don't have to care about toads any more at all, do I? Or Edward, for that matter. It was a good thought, and she shared a grin with her cousin. The only remnants of toad left in their lives were the armor she wore and Terzin's toad-leather cloak.
Since they were in town, they decided to pay a visit to the "Marvels of the Northern Woods" traveling show where they had claimed they were taking the giant toad head. Pity they didn't have the head any more. The place was on the outskirts of town, and it took them a while to find it. There were alleys here, and buildings with shadows; Terzin all but swooned at the possibilities for sneaking around this place. Finally they found a collection of six clustered buildings and a barn at the end of a road, with a sign over the road that said
"Enter Here." They went in.
Birds sang and chirped, and a voice said, "Hello! Hello!" A large, brightly colored bird landed on a stand nearby. "Hello."
"Hello, "Robin responded.
"Welcome to the Marvels of the Northern Woods." The bird leaned over and pecked a sign that informed them it cost two bits to enter. They each dropped in their contribution.
"Welcome to the Marvels of the Northern Woods. Please follow me," the bird said, and fluttered away toward the first building. The road had been cobbled here, unlike those in the rest of the town (or like any roads in Crapaud, for that matter). "This is the first of the buildings. Contained within are many varieties of plant life, found within the northern woods," the bird told them in its stilted speed. "Please enter and exit at your own pace."
They shrugged and went inside. The first thing they heard was a loud thump and a hiss from the right; everyone reached for a weapon instinctively. A large glass case held a smaller version of the vine-thing they had fought in the graveyard.
"Wonders of the Northern Woods, indeed," Robin muttered, removing her hand from her swordhilt.
"I'm sorry, did Betsy shock you?" someone said from right behind them. Everyone jumped again.
"Don't do that to adventurers," she muttered.
"Oh, you're adventurers, are you!" The speaker sounded pleased. "Well, it's a pleasure to have you in, then."
Harrick, who did have a flame spell loaded and ready and had almost used it, turned around to see who it was. It was a man dressed all in green, very pale and with nearly white blonde hair, very unusual.
"Betsy has a tendency to startle people," the stranger admitted. "I'm in the keeper of this building."
"That's Betsy," he indicated the case. "We generally toss in a rabbit, maybe some toad kibble every once in a while, and she's happy. Actually, technically she's a creeparus chokarus, but... would you like to be shown around? I assume the parrot brought you?"
"Yes," Harrick said.
"Another of the marvels of the northern woods, you'll be seeing a whole building full of bird sorts later. But by far they are the most trainable, and the boss has spent years getting that one just right. So where are you guys from? We don't actually get a lot of people up here this time of year, for the most part all of this just gets piled up onto our wagons and carted down the river. He likes to keep us here for verisimilitude. And I'm talking too much again," he apologized.
"No you're not," Terzin assured him; they were all kind of bemused by the strange man, who had not given them his name, they noted.
"Let me show you around." He pointed out the more interesting plant varieties in the room. Harrick checked to see if he had any sort of tendril sprouting off his body, but the man appeared human. They were familiar with most of the plants; Betsy and their guide were the most interesting things there.
"You're from Crapaud? We certainly don't get a lot of people from down that way. Why are you even here, if you're native to the northern woods?" he wanted to know. "And wait until you see the toad exhibit!"
"We just had some time, while we were in town," Robin shrugged.
"But you're right," Terzin said, "we have seen a lo of these kind of things already, because we are adventurers."
"Oh, right. I haven't been able to regulate the temperature in here properly," the guide apologized. "I'm really sorry about that. Normally, all of these are wonderfully, fully in bloom." He indicated a collection of plants with the barest beginnings of flowers. "Ordinarily I'm able to regulate things in here so I can keep them blooming for pretty much the entirety of the summer, but..." he kept going, all of it right over the heads of his audience. They did take note of the poisonous or otherwise dangerous plants he pointed out; Betsy, for instance, was as they were all too aware, a very small example of her species.
"The parrot should be waiting for you outside, and he'll lead you to the next building, I hope you all enjoyed yourselves!" the guide said at last; they thanked him and moved on.
"I hope you enjoyed your tour," the parrot announced. "Please follow me. So, where are you from?" it asked. Terzin gave it a nonsense answer. "Oh, that's nice. Nice weather there."
The next building greeted them with an all too familiar odor: toad. No reason to spend long here, they figured, although they did note the head of the five-year toad on the wall. Their had been bigger, they all agreed. There was a series of dioramas of toads in the wild, and of "Brave toad wranglers." The scale was entirely wrong, of course, unless they were supposed to be wrangling an 11-year toad. Displays of toad products. A sign proclaimed that this exhibit was maintained through donations from the Tanner family.
"Oh, hi!" someone said right behind them.
"Hi," Robin said. It looked like the same man.
"I assume the parrot led you here," he said.
"Strangely enough, I thought we just left you in the last building," Harrick remarked.
"Oh, yeah, I get that a lot. So you seem to be hustling through this pretty quick, you familiar with the great and powerful toads of the north?"
"Rather intimately," Robin replied dryly. The man leaned over and peered at Terzin's cloak.
"This is toad leather. You're from Crapaud, aren't you?"
"How did you guess."
"The toad armor, the air of competence when it comes to dealing with animals this dangerous."
"Well yes, they are, actually..." Terzin admitted.
"I've faced 'em down in order to get the understanding right, and--you have to see the breeding facilities!" He opened a side door, admitting the stench of toad and the jabber of ippi dogs. He tossed a puppy to the toads. "We keep three or four of 'em alive to bring with us on the road, nothing older than two or three years, but it still scares people when we say, 'And this is a BABY toad! Cause having any of the full-grown ones would crush the caravan!' I know," he added in response to their look. "It's an exaggeration. And I'm talking too much again. Hi!"
"I thought we hadn't talked before," Terzin said suspiciously.
"Oh, people are always saying I talk too much," the pale man said breezily.
"I didn't catch your name, sir," Robin said, in response to which he immediately began bustling about, displaying the various toad products in the room.
"Of course, you're familiar with all this already...."
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Copyright © 2000 Brian Rogers