Smiles for Nori

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
The story of a young girl who doesn't fit in, and how her life changes when she makes a new friend.

Not a strict fantasy, since it has no magic, no mystical creatures, etc., but the setting feels other-worldly; perhaps better described as a modern fairy tale

Submitted: July 16, 2015

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Submitted: July 16, 2015

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Nori of Kensworth, who might have otherwise been a fairly ordinary 11-year-old girl, was not to be considered ugly, for even ugliness has its standards. She was fully human, to be sure – a monster neither in form nor in spirit, although those passing through Kensworth might have suspected otherwise. The daughter of a widowed blacksmith, Nori was born with a protruding jaw and pointed ears. Her singular graceful feature was her thick, rosy hair, which she always wore such as to cover those ears. Her jaw, however, not only remained uncovered, but was inconveniently located at eye-level with those adolescents who were deemed “tall” … at least until recently. Puberty hit early for Nori, and she was cursed with more than just the further increase in height. As her breasts grew, so did her feet and her nose. Her skin became hard, thick, and dry. Her papa began to worry.

The town blacksmith sought the expertise of not only the local physician, but of every reputable physician in the realm. Nori's height and broad shoulders she inherited from her father, and her ears from her mother, but nothing else could be explained. Papa eventually gave up, in part because the expenses incurred had all but depleted his moneybag, and in part because he determined that knowing the cause of Nori's symptoms should have no great effect on him. His daughter was his daughter, and as long as she was healthy, he cared not how she looked.

Papa was both fierce and gentle in his temper, in his work, and in his love for Nori. After Nori's mother died, Papa moved his house and his heart away from the rest of the villagers, but Nori he loved with a passion. He knew not how to be a good father, but that never hampered his attempt. He broke fast with Nori every morning and sang her to sleep every night. He had taught her to read, to cook, and to add; among the lessons he did not teach her was one of good hygiene, since a blacksmith had no need to consider such a thing.

Nori knew enough to bathe, but her teeth were yellow, her breath repugnant, and her fingernails long. These attributes were added to the list – to which belonged her stature, jaw, and other physical oddities – of hideous features all of Kensworth had the displeasure of witnessing. The other children felt it was their obligation to mock young Nori. In addition to ridiculing various features, the children called her “that creature”, as well as a beast or an ogre.

As the harassment increased, so did the amount of food Nori consumed. She found much comfort in food, and it certainly showed. But even the most appetizing meals could not drown out the taunts that occupied Nori's dreams. One day, a few moon-cycles ago, some of the children played a horrible, horrible prank upon Nori. The prank was far too horrible to be retold, but by the end, all of Nori's hair had been shaved. Having lost the one beautiful part of her self and having experienced the worst torment yet, Nori locked herself and her food away in her papa's house. When she emerged a week later with a large belly, the town of Kensworth saw her bald head and, for the first time, her pointed ears.

It was then that she received the label troll, and it remained the favorite of all Nori's labels, not only among the children, but among several of the adults as well.

All this would have been too much for Nori to bear, as it would have be for anyone, had it not been for her father's overwhelming love. She was not miserable too often, but she certainly was happy even less often. She smiled precisely twice each day: once when she was served dinner, and once when her father came home at night.

Nori had one friend and one friend only. His name was Garth, and he was the youngest son of Sampson and Mira. Sampson and Mira owned Kensworth's inn, which was located on the edge of town. When they saw how fond Garth was of young Nori, they began to treat her as they would a niece. They permitted Garth and Nori to stay inside or around the inn as much as they pleased, so long as they did not disturb the guests. They even gave Nori dinner almost every evening after Papa had lost so much of his money on the physicians and was now called upon to work long past sundown. Nori felt as if the inn was her second home, and it was there that Nori first encountered Agatha.

 

It began as a slow and gloomy evening at the inn, not unlike the evenings prior. Nori and young Garth had been catching frogs while Sampson finished preparing supper. Whether Nori understood animals well, or whether she was accustomed to people running from her, Nori had a knack for anticipating when and where the frogs would jump and thus had more frogs in her bucket than Garth had. Whenever she gained too many, she would goad a couple frogs to jump into Garth's bucket, and Garth would pretend not to notice. At the last such instance, which occurred just as the two children were returning to the inn but before the counting of the creatures, four frogs and one toad took their chance of escape and Nori clumsily lost control of her bucket. In his eagerness to help Nori, Garth leaped after the liberated frogs and, in doing so, dropped his own bucket.

Fenlock Creek ran less than thirty grown-up-sized steps away from the back of the inn, which made for lovely scenery. It also came in handy when fetching water for the wash. It was not so convenient, however, as the starting ground for a ribbitting parade of amphibians. With the children behind them executing a fair amount of leaping of their own, the score of frogs (and one toad) felt it best to move away from the creek and toward the inn's open door, courtesy of Sampson's ill-timed dinner announcement. The frogs at his feet gave Sampson a start, and he hastily shut the door, permitting only three of the frogs to enter the inn's kitchen. While succeeding in keeping most of the frogs out of his building, he also blocked entry for poor Garth and Nori. As the innkeeper successfully cornered one of the frogs, the two children darted around to the front of the inn with hopes of flanking the renegade animals.

Moments later, the sound of frightened frogs called the attention of Mira – as well as every visitor in the common room – to the kitchen door just before Sampson burst through it. At the same time, Garth stumbled through the main entrance, with Nori in tow, and bee-lined toward his father. Now, Sampson was quite a tall man, almost as large as Nori's papa, so to see him and his son leaping up and down across the common room while swiping at the floor began to upset some of the inn's patrons, to say the least. By the time Sampson caught his second frog, two women had fainted, four children had started screaming, seven men were yelling at the innkeeper, and thirteen people had retreated to the upstairs. With only one remaining frog on the loose, Mira attempted to calm down the guests while Garth started hopping in a new direction.

It was Nori who found the fugitive vaulting onto a table in the corner of the room where two men and one young girl sat, each clothed in very fine garments. Nori raced to grab the frog before it called further attention upon itself, and the frog was determined to take a warm bath. Just as the amphibian made its plunge toward the nearest bowl, Nori heroically snatched it out of the air! Her moment of glory was short-lived, however, as her over-eagerness to capture the runaway lent itself to great momentum of Nori's body, which led to her falling toward the corner table even after the frog was in hand, which led to the thrusting of Nori's elbows onto one edge of the very bowl that the frog had made its target, which led to the opposite edge of the bowl being catapulted into the air, which unfortunately led to the broth of the rabbit-and-herb stew – along with a look of disdain – covering the face of the man behind the bowl.

The face belonged to none other than the Duke of Hatherton, who was known for his love of jewelry, but certainly not for his tolerance. The Duke had decided to visit Kensworth to expand his jewelry collection, and his decision to do so was a great honor for the village. The town jeweler had agreed to meet the Duke at the inn to present his finest work. The jeweler, along with his daughter of four and a case of glamorous accessories, had claimed a table in the corner of the common room and had ordered dinner for all three persons. The Duke's carriage arrived shortly thereafter, and his Grace took a seat at the table of the jeweler and his daughter approximately two minutes before the commotion had begun. What followed was this: a cordial introduction; the unveiling of gems set in bracelets, rings, and necklaces; a glimmer in the young girl's eyes; a brighter glimmer in the Duke's eyes; the sampling of rings upon the Duke's finger; the distraction of strange noises emerging from the kitchen; the interruption of the bumbling innkeeper; the Duke's outrage; the jeweler's assurance that all will be rectified; stew upon the Duke's face.

After recovering from his shock, the Duke of Hatherton wiped down his face and glared at Nori. “What is such a vile creature doing at this inn? And particularly on the day that I chose to grace this filthy town with my presence?”

“I'm terribly sorry, sir.” Not realizing the position of the man to whom she spoke nor the respect due him, Nori ran to the kitchen, out the door, and to the other side of Fenlock Creek before releasing the frog.

In her absence, the Duke muttered, “Splendid: one beast takes out another.” Now, when most persons mutter, they do so under their breath so as to keep others from hearing their utterances; contrarily, when a duke mutters, he does so above the bustle of people returning to their seats and above the apologies of jewelers and innkeepers – a duke mutters so that all may know the duke has muttered.

Sampson was known to be a proud man, so for him to offer an apology on behalf of his inn meant a great deal. An insult to his son's friend, though, was something he simply would not tolerate, no matter who had delivered it. “Your Grace, the young girl who kept that frog from jumping into your stew or your lap or your royal self-importance is the gentlest human I have ever encountered, and I can tell you as an innkeeper I have encountered a good many...”

“Oh, she is human, then. And to think I was almost credited for discovering a new species. Now, about that comment of my self-importance...”

“You are not welcome in this town, you peacock!”

“Yeah!”

Mira grabbed her son and placed one hand over his mouth. “Quiet, Garth.”

“Yes, I know,” the Duke replied, standing. “The frogs told me so.”

It was at this point that the jeweler inserted himself into the conversation: “No, no! We certainly welcome and revere you! Your mere presence is a blessing to us all! Allow us to make accommodations...”

The Duke ignored the man next to him and made his way toward the door. “You can expect to hear from me. Oh, and if I were you I would start packing your bags and looking for another line of work. Do not expect this inn to receive any more visitors save for thieves and scoundrels.”

Outside, Nori rounded the corner of the inn with stew on her elbow and mud on her boots just in time to see a squire aid the Duke into his carriage before the driver cracked his whip. As she entered into the common room, Mira threw her arms around Nori and held the girl's cheek against her bosom (which meant that Nori had to bend down, as she was considerably taller than Mira).

“Poor dear. Are you alright?”

“Well, I'm a little wet.”

Mira smiled, relieved that the Duke's insults had not disturbed Nori. “That's my girl.”

“Oh look, I've got water all over your floor. Let me clean it up.”

“No no, You go clean yourself up. Garth will tend to this mess. I will prepare for you a nice warm bowl of rabbit-and-herb stew.” It was then time for the first of Nori's daily smiles.

After Nori had cleaned herself up and returned to the common room for her dinner, she watched as the jeweler's daughter placed the jewelry back in its carrying box. The jewelry had been scattered during the commotion, and now the little girl slid under tables and chairs to grab shimmering objects and gently place them back into the box. Meanwhile, her father bickered with the innkeeper.

The sixth-to-last item that the small child found was a ring lying next to Nori's oversized left boot. At seeing the blacksmith's daughter, the little girl stopped and stared. But this stare, Nori noted, was not one of terror, but almost one of wonder. At that same moment when other children would have taken a step back, the jeweler's daughter took a step forward. Then another. Then the little girl bent down and retrieved the ring, stood up, and held the ring toward Nori with her palm facing downward. Hesitantly, Nori held out her hand beneath the girl's outstretched arm, and the girl dropped the ring into Nori's palm. With a gleam in her eyes, the jeweler's daughter skipped away to collect the remaining five items.

“Come now, Agatha,” said the jeweler, “we're leaving.”

Without a word, little Agatha placed the rest of the jewels into her father's box then followed him out the door.

Only after the jeweler and his daughter were out of sight did Nori look down at the ring in her grasp. Set in a thin, golden frame was a square emerald that would have matched her mother's eyes. The pattern along the side was an elaborate series of curls. Engraved on the inside was a word or phrase in some unfamiliar tongue. Nori placed the ring in her left pocket and finished her stew.

After saying her goodbyes to Garth, Mira, and Sampson, Nori made her way to the blacksmith's house on the outskirts of the village where she would await the return of her father and her second daily smile.

 

The following morning, Nori ate her breakfast and took her bath as was her routine, then set out into town, determined to return Agatha's ring. The gift was a kindly gesture, she could not deny, but surely the young girl did not recognize the ring's true value; such a commodity could not merely be handed over to another person, nevertheless a person who looked like a troll. It was only after she had explained her errand to Garth and excused herself from the usual play-time that Nori realized she knew not where the jeweler's shop was located, never having owned any jewelry herself.

Although Nori had lived in the small town of Kensworth all her life, she felt like a stranger among its buildings, and not solely because she was treated as an outcast. Having spent most of her time between her house and the inn, Nori would only venture into town to run the occasional errand for Papa or Mira, and even then would make the trip as quick and direct as possible.

Now, Nori wandered the streets peering through the windows of shops scarcely familiar. On more than one occasion, she was chased away by a merchant who feared she might attempt theft, or at least that she might scare away customers. Other children would snicker and sneer as she passed, and one particular group followed her to place bets on which villagers would run from Nori, which would hide, and which would mock her. Thus far, it was nothing out of the ordinary for the blacksmith's daughter.

After reaching the far end of town without the slightest clue as to where to find the jeweler, the defeated Nori and her sneering companions began to venture back the very way she came, this time without examining each shop. After passing seventeen buildings, six buggies, two drunks, and one particularly smug pig, Nori heard soft, quick footsteps behind her. She turned expecting to see one of the trailing adolescents preparing to kick her or throw a bucket of mud on her (again), but instead saw the jeweler's daughter. Before anything could be said, the little girl threw herself onto Nori's right leg and ensnared it with her tiny arms.

“Oh, uh … Hi. It's Agatha, right?”

The little girl released her grip, looked up at Nori, and nodded.

“My name is Nori.”

Agatha grinned.

“Listen, can I, uh … Where are your parents?”

Agatha wrapped her left first around Nori's right index finger and started walking back toward the far edge of town. As Nori followed, she noticed that the brigade of children who had been tailing her now stood motionless with bewildered looks upon their faces.

The two girls came to a three-room stone house whose entrance stood twenty-three grown-up-sized steps away from the main road. Inside, the first room held a wooden table and four wooden chairs. The room to the left, Nori surmised, must have been the kitchen. Agatha led Nori straight to the back room, complete with two beds, a set of drawers, a wardrobe, and three bookshelves. Agatha went to the smallest bed and its adjacent shelves and started grabbing books, bracelets, dolls, buttons, and pictures and proceeded to hand them, each in turn, to Nori.

“Oh, that's lovely. Thank you. How nice. Where did you get this one? Oh, careful, there. Maybe we should leave these on the shelves. Yes, that one's nice, too.”

Suddenly, there came the short yet startling scream from behind Nori, followed by a thin crash. In the doorway stood a woman of motherly age, of elegant features, and of fine dress. At her feet was a puddle of tea and shards of what had previously been a tea cup.

“Oh, uh … Hi. Agatha was just, just showing me some of her favorite things.” By 'favorite things', Nori had meant 'everything', for hardly any object remained on the shelves by this time. Nori noticed that the woman's eyes were fixed on Nori's index finger, which was once again held captive by Agatha's grip.

“So she was. Agatha, honey, why don't you return all of this back where it belongs.” The woman's breath steadied, and her countenance softened. “I do apologize for the screaming, dear; I hardly expected to see anyone but Agatha in here. Can I get you some tea?”

Nori accepted and offered to clean up the mess on the floor, but the jeweler's wife would not have a guest cleaning up her own mess. Nori took a seat at the table in the first room while Agatha cleaned the bedroom. After lemongrass-and-chamomile tea was served, Nori explained that she came to return the emerald ring from the night before. Naturally, Agatha's mother was curious to know how it came unto Nori's possession, so Nori recounted the incident with the Duke and the frogs at the inn, which gave the jeweler's wife quite a laugh.

“I'll tell you what. Why don't you keep the ring? Agatha seems rather taken with you; she isn't very comfortable with many people, so to see her cling to you after just having met you is, well … it warms a mother's heart.”

“Are you sure? It looks quite expensive; Papa could never afford it. It doesn't fit on any of my fingers anyway.”

“So I see. Well, we'll just have to give you another item, won't we. Agatha thinks that everything is the most beautiful thing, the dear, so maybe I'll do the choosing this time. Consider it a gift; don't worry about the cost. One moment.” The jeweler's wife disappeared into the back room, then emerged a minute later with Agatha on her heels. “There, now. This will suit you quite splendidly, I believe.” The woman held out a shimmering silver chain with what looked like a waning moon in the middle. “We call it a 'silver smile', a new design of my husband's. Bend down for me, dear.” The lady draped the necklace over Nori's neck until the silver smile hung against her chest. As she stood up, the sunlight through the window struck the smile, exuding a brilliance that brightened the entire room. “Yes, that will do just fine.”

 

The silver smile around Nori's neck was a ripe fruit on a withered branch: elegant, inviting, and lovely against a dull, tattered background. The simplicity and ruggedness of her garments were even more evident now that they were juxtaposed with the brilliance of the necklace. Nori felt uncomfortable with its weight.

Gifts were rarely given to Nori except from the innkeeper's family, so naturally, Nori was not accustomed to accepting them. An item given with no expectation of payment or favor in return was an unfamiliar concept. Had Nori unknowingly earned the silver smile? Was it some sort of trick? Was Nori now indebted to the jeweler's family? The trollish girl had turned over the trinket in her palm with each question that had turned over in her mind, but eventually Nori concluded that there was no wrong in receiving the gift and thus donned it before leaving home each morning.

In the days following her first visit to the jeweler's house, Nori discovered that as she walked the streets, people began to stare in quite a different manner than they had before; if she was not mistaken, there was now some confusion in their eyes. People would not back away so quickly, but instead would turn their gaze upon the elegant accessory that hung upon Nori's chest. After confirming the fact that the necklace was not in fact stolen, the villagers would whisper not about Nori's large feet nor her protruding jaw, but about her taste in fashion: some would remark on how appropriate it was that Nori should finally put forth an effort to make her appearance more appealing; others would scoff at the gall a troll must have to presume even she could adorn herself with something so admirable. Talk continued, but eventually Nori saw that one of the other girls adorned a silver smile as well.

Tessa of Kensworth was one of the more popular of the town's adolescent girls, and she fancied herself the fairest among all the girls she knew. A frequent leader of the mocker's brigade, Tessa could not abide by the idea that the troll might exhibit an ornament more stunning than Tessa herself was known to have. Day after day, young Tessa would sift through the jeweler's collection, but with each glorious adornment she discovered, she feared that even one person might find Nori's necklace more sensational. The only solution was for Tessa to adorn a silver smile of her own.

Six days after Nori stunned the town, Tessa stepped out of the jeweler's shop with her new purchase around her neck and began to flaunt it about the streets, confident that the town's attention would no longer fall on Nori the Troll. She would soon learn of her mistake.

 

Meeting with Agatha became a daily habit. Often, Nori would spend a morning at the jeweler's house playing with dolls before spending the afternoon at the inn. Sometimes Garth, Nori, and Agatha would all play together, fighting dragons to rescue the prince, hiding-and-seeking, or just catching butterflies. Nori found that she had very little in common with a pretty little four-year-old, but she enjoyed Agatha's gaiety and warmth, and Agatha was always excited to see Nori – so even though there were many a time when one girl would simply watch the other take part in an activity in which the first girl held no interest or understanding, it was well worth it merely for the two of them to be together. During these times, Nori would begin to show the faintest hint of a smile.

Occasionally during the little girl's nap time, Nori would visit with Agatha's mother over a pot of tea. The mother would express how remarkable it was that Agatha would find such comfort and joy around Nori, and Nori would admit those same feelings. Nori would always confess her worry that the jeweler would be displeased with with Nori and Agatha frolicking about together, and Agatha's mother would assure her that her husband did not dislike Nori, but that his pride was simply wounded after the dreaded Duke-and-frog incident.

“Tell me, if you don't mind my asking: do you get your pointed ears from your mother?” the jeweler's wife asked during one of their earlier visits. By this time, Nori's hair had grown to the length of one of Nori's fingers, and one could begin to see how lush and rosy that hair was. At the mention of her ears, Nori brushed her hair to cover their tips. Agatha's mother continued: “I once knew a lady with pointed ears and vibrant red hair, just like yours. She also had sparkling green eyes – I believe you mentioned that when you returned the ring.”

“Oh, yes. My hair and my, um … my ears, I inherited from my mother.”

“You know, I imagine it was the very lady I once knew. Tell me, was she called Lilah?”

“Yes! Yes, that was her name. How did you know her?”

“How extraordinary that I should find Lilah's daughter after all these years! Well, I've seen you about town since I moved here after Agatha was born, but I never imagined your late mother was my old acquaintance. Anywho, your mother and I lived together in a town called Credola. Had she ever told you of it? No? Oh, well, my elder brother worked as a field-hand on your grandfather's farm. Naturally, he met Lilah through her father, and my brother later introduced her to me. We would gallivant about the town together from time to time, but I can hardly say that Lilah and I were good friends. I wish we had been, though, for I truly admired her.”

“Why?”

“Well, your mother – goodness! Even still, I can hardly believe it – your mother was such a dear. So compassionate, so full of life, and such a great beauty...”

“Really?”

“Why, yes. Hasn't your father told you?”

“Of course, but I thought that's what all fathers would say of mothers.”

“Perhaps. But in the case of your mother, she really was the envy of town. I can hardly think of a young man in Credola who didn't seek Lilah's hand in marriage. I suppose the only reason I was not all that close to Lilah was because I was rather jealous of her.”

“Really? But you're so beautiful.”

“Oh, thank you child. Even so, my own beauty could not match your mother's – no one's could. Of course, no one had those charming ears of hers. No one but you and your grandmother, of course. Oh, don't look so surprised, dear. Hasn't anyone told you how beautiful those ears are?” As Nori looked down at the floor, the jeweler's wife realized that Nori must have only ever heard the opposite. “Well, they should certainly start. Allow me to be the first: Nori, your pointed ears, which together with your rosy hair so gloriously frame your face, are absolutely, positively beautiful.”

 

Poor dear Nori, the girl who looked like a troll and was treated as the same, had no inclination as to what to make of this new information concerning her mother. Over the next few weeks, Nori's mind would wander during the day, and at night she would lay awake in bed. Some days she felt that if her mother was so beautiful, maybe Nori herself had the potential to be beautiful one day. Other days she nearly convinced herself that she already was beautiful – even if not quite as beautiful as her mother – but sadly and inexplicably, no one could recognize that beauty. And other days still, Nori wondered how such a gorgeous woman could give birth to such a hideous little girl; it was simply unfair, which struck a great sadness in Nori. Sometimes she even grew angry at her mother for keeping all that beauty to herself. Oh, if only the pointed-eared Lilah were here now, Nori would at least have someone to turn to.

Her mother was not the only thing on Nori's mind. Comments on Nori's sense of fashion permeated through the town, becoming more and more positive all the while. Two days after Tessa had begun to flaunt her duplicate necklace, another girl purchased an identical piece. By the end of the week, nine girls wore the same silver smile around town, while another half of the girls – and quite a few of the women – were crowded outside the jeweler's shop demanding that he make more silver smiles. The jeweler's wife left her home during the day to tend to the shop while the jeweler spent all his time fashioning new smiles, and young Agatha was left in the care of Nori.

At that same time, sellers of furs, silks, and perfumes began to approach Nori and offer some of their merchandise to her, for they attributed Nori, not Tessa, as the trendsetter. At first, the merchandise simply came at no cost to the former outcast. Soon, the sellers even offered to pay Nori to sample their products. One struggling fish merchant even offered to split profits with Nori if she agreed to publicly eat his fish thrice a week in the center of the town square.

“You didn't accept any of the offers yet?” Garth had been rather excited to hear about all the offers Nori had received, but was quite astounded to hear that his friend was planning to reject them all. “That's easy money! Why not just take it?”

Naturally, Nori was still unaccustomed to receiving good things from other people. “I don't know, I just didn't do anything to deserve it. I would feel bad taking something that I guess should not really belong to me.”

“But it's like a job, right? You are doing something for someone else, and they pay you. It's what normal people do! It's how they get money to live a normal life! And what about that necklace that everybody loves? Agatha's mother just gave that to you, right?”

“Yeah, but that's different. She gave it to me because she appreciated me, I think. It's one thing to receive a gift from a friend, but it's not the same receiving something from some person that doesn't even like me. These merchants are only trying to help themselves; they don't care about me.”

In truth, Nori had become quite uncomfortable with all the attention the townspeople, particularly the merchants, had been showing her as of late, to the point that she was growing reluctant to even show her face in the town. Here in Garth's bedroom was one of the few places that she felt she could simply be herself.

“Well, maybe if you took their money, you could pay back my father for all of his meals that you ever ate here.”

“What? Garth, what are you so upset about?”

“Maybe if you cared as much about me as you care about Agatha and her stupid jewelry, you could give us enough money that we could keep the inn. But maybe you and your stupid frogs just want us to leave anyway. Fine. Don't come back.” And with that, Garth stormed out of the room.

Mira passed by a few seconds later. “Garth? Garth honey, what's wrong? Nori? Oh, Nori, sweetie! What happened? Here: dry your eyes with this.”

Nori grabbed the handkerchief, but simply held it on her lap where it would collect the falling tears. “It's all my fault. If it wasn't for me, the frogs would not have come inside, and the Duke would not be upset, and you could stay here forever.” Subconsciously, she tugged at her hair, ensuring it veiled her ears.

“Oh Nori, of course it's not your fault. It was never your fault. Frogs jump just where they please, and you can't always stop them. The Duke is a selfish and arrogant man, and that has nothing to do with you.”

“So, you aren't upset that you are losing the inn?”

“Of course I am. I'm very upset. But I'm not upset with you; you are not responsible. These things happen, dear. I cannot go back and stop this from happening, and neither can you. Nor can any of us stand against the Duke's temper.”

“But maybe I can stop this. Garth was right, I can get a lot of money, and I do owe you so much for letting me play here and eat your food every day.”

“Oh, no, dear. No. You do not owe Sampson and me anything. You are such a good friend to my son, and we will never be able to repay you for that. Perhaps we owe you.”

Nori sniffled.

“You know, when you told me about how all those people wanted to give you their merchandise and give you their money but you could not accept it, I was so proud of you. Really. I thought to myself: Nori is not going to take the easy path, and she is not going to go through life the way everyone else wants her to; she is better than that; Nori will do things her own way. Garth is not mad at you – he just has trouble accepting that he won't be able to see you every day, and he doesn't know how to admit he will miss you. We will all miss you. But don't you take anything from those merchants unless your heart tells you to. We will be okay.”

“Of course we'll be okay. Why wouldn't we?” Sampson stood in the doorway and motioned for Nori and Mira to come down to the common room. “And that girl doesn't need to listen to her heart, not when she's got that good head on her shoulders. Come along now; you don't want supper to get cold, do you?”

Even with her stomach growling and the sumptuous aroma of roasted venison and boiled turnips in the air, Nori simply could not bring herself to smile that evening.

 

As it came time for Nori to end her day, she crawled into her father's bed instead of her own. Papa crawled in next to her and wrapped his burly arm around his daughter, pulling her close. The two laid quietly for a time in the dim light of the room's sole candle, feeling each other breathe.

“Papa?” said Nori after a time.

“Hm?”

“What was mother like?”

“She was wonderful. I told you before.”

“I know, but tell me more. You know the jeweler's wife? She knew mother. Before. She tells me stories. Can you tell me stories? Not about her being my mother, but about when she was young.”

Nori felt her father's stillness behind her. She felt his hairy arm tighten around her. She felt his breath against her neck as he let escape the word: “Alright.”

Nori listened intently as Papa told her about the time that her mother nursed a filly back to health, and the first time that Lilah mistook one metalworking tool for another, and the time she first met Papa. Nori laughed at the stories that made her father laugh, and she grew quiet during the stories that made her father cry. After a time, Papa declared that it was far too late to keep telling stories, and that they could resume on another day.

“Alright. Papa?”

“Hm?”

“Just one more question: what would mother do if she was me?”

“If people wanted to give her money to wear their clothes?”

“Yes. If she could stop her friend from moving away.”

“Well … this is because people care about what you like, right? Then, your mother would tell people about the things she truly did like. She would encourage people to visit the inn and tell them how great it is.”

Nori was pleased to hear that her mother wouldn't take the merchants' money either; each new thing that Nori realized she had in common with her mother brought her great comfort, and it was a relief to feel her own decision was supported. Nori feared, however, that Lilah's actions would still not solve anything. “But people already know that I go to the inn all the time. Anyway, they wouldn't go to the inn themselves. The inn is for people who don't live in town.”

“I suppose you're right. That's not what you should do anyway. You have to make your own choice – not what Garth would do, not what I would do, and not even what your mother would do. What would you do?”

 

Nori was still pondering that conversation with her father two days later when Garth aproached her at Agatha's house. He offered his apologies for his harsh words, which Nori accepted graciously. The three friends completed their afternoon constructing a model house for Agatha's myriad dolls. As the sun fell lower and their stomachs grumbled, Nori, Garth, and Agatha made their way across town toward the inn for dinner.

As they approached the market square at the center of town, they came by a minstrel playing serene melody with his lute. Agatha pranced up to the musician and proceeded to jump up and down while flailing her arms about in what could only be interpreted as an attempt at dancing. As Nori and Garth praised Agatha's dancing technique and cheered her on, the minstrel switched to a tune more lively. After a few stanzas, the small child grabbed Nori's arm and tugged her toward the minstrel, all without interrupting her lashing of limbs. Nori, unfamiliar with anything that could be even remotely qualified as fine art, and uncomfortable with the prospect of drawing more attention unto herself, naturally protested. Still, Agatha tugged and tugged and tugged until, finally, Nori relented.

The blacksmith's daughter had never before danced, and she imagined that her own attempts must look dreadfully pathetic, even juxtaposed to her young companion's spastic movements. Utterly ignorant of what might be expected from a dancer, Nori began by mimicking her friend's technique. Gradually, more fluid movements developed: Nori soon found that she was keeping her feet on the ground but shifting her weight about as she created sweeping motions with her arms, as if painting across a vast canvas.

The result was no less than the sensation of exuberance within the depths of her soul. This girl who had never left her home town now felt one moment that she was atop the highest mountain; the next, amid billowing plains stretching as far as the eye could see; and the next, at the edge of a great waterfall. The fears and anxieties that so long took residence in the forefront of her mind had quickly become distant memories, and Nori felt a freedom that she had never known was possible. Perhaps her dancing partner was livelihood itself.

She glanced up to discover that a crowd had gathered around the dancing duo. Some of the girls Nori's age were scoffing at their movements, while a few others laughed, but once Garth started clapping, it wasn't long before the whole crowed was clapping in rhythm. Naturally, the commotion caught the attention of more townspeople, and the crowd continued to grow. A few music-lovers even hurried off to fetch instruments from their houses; by the time they had all returned, the band was composed of two lutes, a lyre, three kettles with ladles which served as drums and their sticks, and two tambourines. A few stray puppies added their own voices to the music, and one of them proceeded to enter into the center of the circle, stand on its hind legs, and leap about.

“I'm sorry, but we really should be going, now,” Nori announced after a while. “We're off to the inn.”

The crowd protested. “Aww!” “Don't stop now.” “Come on, there's plenty of daylight, yet.” “Long live the dancing!” “Don't go!”

“And put an end to tonight's entertainment?!” one person shouted. “Very well, if you desire to change venues, then we shall accompany you.”

“Hurrah!” the rest of the crowd cheered.

And so began the parade, led by the minstrel and his makeshift band, Agatha, Nori, and the dancing dog. With each building passed, more and more people stepped outside to see the source of the commotion. Garth appointed himself herald and ran before the parade, knocking of every door in sight. By the time the parade reached the inn at the far end of town, it had amassed forty-seven women, forty-three men, twenty-nine children, four canines, and a goat.

Upon hearing the commotion, Sampson stumbled out of the inn, a look of panic on his face. “What's going on here?” Mira was not far behind.

“They just wanted to watch us dance!” Nori proclaimed.

“It's dinner time,” Sampson said in a hushed yet strained voice. “People will be getting hungry. If this crowd wants food, they shouldn't expect to get it from us. We can't house this many people, never mind feed them!”

Mira placed her hand on her husband's shoulder and guided him back inside. “Sure we can. And we will. Get in there and keep cooking. Garth can help. I'll run to the market and buy more ingredients. Nori, you and Agatha attend to the guests.”

“Me?”

“Yes, dear. That's what you're already doing. Everyone inside! Come on in!”

What neither Sampson nor Mira had mentioned was the real reason that Sampson was so upset. This particular evening was the very evening that Jolly Geraldine was arranged to visit the inn. Geraldine had several establishments throughout the realm and was looking to expand. Known for her abundantly friendly attitude and the mirth she unfailingly aroused in her guests, she was dubbed “Jolly” by her patrons. Sampson had wanted the evening to be perfect when he was convincing Geraldine to buy the inn, so naturally he was quite overwhelmed at the unexpected influx of rambunctious townspeople, but Mira was immediately convinced that such excitement was precisely what it would take to persuade Geraldine to make the investment. When Jolly Geraldine stepped in the inn that night, which was difficult since people were packed in even to the front entrance, she was met with music and dancing. The exhausted Nori had long since stopped dancing, but she kept encouraging other townspeople and travelers to step into the center and dance with Agatha and the canine. Mira and Garth ran in and out of the kitchen, delivering food and gathering coin.

“How marvelous!” Geraldine exclaimed. “And they say I'm jolly!”

Long after the sun had set, when the minstrel and the last of the townspeople had finally left and the travelers had retired to their rooms, Nori and Garth began cleaning the tables and floors, Mira fetched a blanket for the sleeping Agatha, and Sampson took a seat opposite of Geraldine. By the time the common room was clean, Sampson and Geraldine had settled on twice the number of coin that Sampson had initially hoped for, and Mira and Sampson were appointed the new co-managers of Geraldine's establishment in a far-off town called Sumpton.

An exhausted Nori plopped down on the bench where Agatha lay and began stroking the young girl's hair. As she reflected on the day, still astonished at the success it brought Sampson and Mira, Garth sat down beside her. Presently, they leaned against each other, neither saying anything. Both were happy of the security provided Garth's family, yet sorrowful at the prospect of the family living so very far from Nori and her father. Lost in their thoughts, yet together in them, they drifted off to sleep.

 

It was one moon-cycle later, and Nori had begun to feel less self-conscious. Her reliance upon food for comfort had diminished, and so had the size of her stomach. Her hair was still short, yet not so ill-befitting a young woman. She had acquired some new clothes as a parting gift from the former innkeepers, and while the clothes were still far from elegant or even enviable, they were a satisfactory improvement considering their lack of stains and tears. The silver smile regularly hung around her neck, still in great contrast to the plain clothes behind it, yet a perfect fit to those that knew Nori.

The town had seen its fad of silver smiles, sapphire smiles, ruby smiles, and emerald smiles come and go, but it was replaced by other jewelry fads, and Agatha's father maintained a thriving business, even taking on two apprentices for his shop so his wife could return home to spend her days with Agatha. Agatha continued to spend her mornings with Nori, but they did not attend Jolly Geraldine's inn in the afternoons, since it simply was not the same without Garth.

Mira and Sampson had written to inform Nori that they were settling in well at Sumpton, and Garth found ways to express just how much he missed his friend.

The worry for Garth's, Mira's, and Sampson's well-being had quelled, as had the pressure from various merchants for Nori to endorse their products. Their offers turned to ones of apprenticeship, some of which Nori gratefully took into consideration. Meanwhile, Nori's fame had vanished, but the townspeople continued to nod or even smile a greeting to Nori whenever she passed. The few children who had resumed mocking her were thoroughly reprimanded. Even Tessa's attitude toward the blacksmith's daughter progressed from disdain to ignorance, which was fine enough for Nori.

Yet one thing had continued to dominate Nori's thoughts: questions about her mother. Not only did she yearn to know more about her mother's character, she also desired to ascertain the significance – be there any at all – of her pointed ears. After much consideration, peppered alternately with Papa's protestations and his proddings, Nori determined to live with her grandmother for a spell.

And so she bade a bitter goodbye to sweet Agatha, and an even more heartfelt one to her father.

As a new sun rose, the blacksmith's daughter – equipped with satchel full of bread, a blanket, and a slender purse – tucked her hair behind her ear, smiled, and took her first step toward Credola.

Nori of Kensworth, who might have otherwise been a fairly ordinary 11-year-old girl, was not to be considered ugly, for even ugliness has its standards. She was fully human, to be sure – a monster neither in form nor in spirit, although those passing through Kensworth might have suspected otherwise. The daughter of a widowed blacksmith, Nori was born with a protruding jaw and pointed ears. Her singular graceful feature was her thick, rosy hair, which she always wore such as to cover those ears. Her jaw, however, not only remained uncovered, but was inconveniently located at eye-level with those adolescents who were deemed “tall” … at least until recently. Puberty hit early for Nori, and she was cursed with more than just the further increase in height. As her breasts grew, so did her feet and her nose. Her skin became hard, thick, and dry. Her papa began to worry.

The town blacksmith sought the expertise of not only the local physician, but of every reputable physician in the realm. Nori's height and broad shoulders she inherited from her father, and her ears from her mother, but nothing else could be explained. Papa eventually gave up, in part because the expenses incurred had all but depleted his moneybag, and in part because he determined that knowing the cause of Nori's symptoms should have no great effect on him. His daughter was his daughter, and as long as she was healthy, he cared not how she looked.

Papa was both fierce and gentle in his temper, in his work, and in his love for Nori. After Nori's mother died, Papa moved his house and his heart away from the rest of the villagers, but Nori he loved with a passion. He knew not how to be a good father, but that never hampered his attempt. He broke fast with Nori every morning and sang her to sleep every night. He had taught her to read, to cook, and to add; among the lessons he did not teach her was one of good hygiene, since a blacksmith had no need to consider such a thing.

Nori knew enough to bathe, but her teeth were yellow, her breath repugnant, and her fingernails long. These attributes were added to the list – to which belonged her stature, jaw, and other physical oddities – of hideous features all of Kensworth had the displeasure of witnessing. The other children felt it was their obligation to mock young Nori. In addition to ridiculing various features, the children called her “that creature”, as well as a beast or an ogre.

As the harassment increased, so did the amount of food Nori consumed. She found much comfort in food, and it certainly showed. But even the most appetizing meals could not drown out the taunts that occupied Nori's dreams. One day, a few moon-cycles ago, some of the children played a horrible, horrible prank upon Nori. The prank was far too horrible to be retold, but by the end, all of Nori's hair had been shaved. Having lost the one beautiful part of her self and having experienced the worst torment yet, Nori locked herself and her food away in her papa's house. When she emerged a week later with a large belly, the town of Kensworth saw her bald head and, for the first time, her pointed ears.

It was then that she received the label troll, and it remained the favorite of all Nori's labels, not only among the children, but among several of the adults as well.

All this would have been too much for Nori to bear, as it would have be for anyone, had it not been for her father's overwhelming love. She was not miserable too often, but she certainly was happy even less often. She smiled precisely twice each day: once when she was served dinner, and once when her father came home at night.

Nori had one friend and one friend only. His name was Garth, and he was the youngest son of Sampson and Mira. Sampson and Mira owned Kensworth's inn, which was located on the edge of town. When they saw how fond Garth was of young Nori, they began to treat her as they would a niece. They permitted Garth and Nori to stay inside or around the inn as much as they pleased, so long as they did not disturb the guests. They even gave Nori dinner almost every evening after Papa had lost so much of his money on the physicians and was now called upon to work long past sundown. Nori felt as if the inn was her second home, and it was there that Nori first encountered Agatha.

 

It began as a slow and gloomy evening at the inn, not unlike the evenings prior. Nori and young Garth had been catching frogs while Sampson finished preparing supper. Whether Nori understood animals well, or whether she was accustomed to people running from her, Nori had a knack for anticipating when and where the frogs would jump and thus had more frogs in her bucket than Garth had. Whenever she gained too many, she would goad a couple frogs to jump into Garth's bucket, and Garth would pretend not to notice. At the last such instance, which occurred just as the two children were returning to the inn but before the counting of the creatures, four frogs and one toad took their chance of escape and Nori clumsily lost control of her bucket. In his eagerness to help Nori, Garth leaped after the liberated frogs and, in doing so, dropped his own bucket.

Fenlock Creek ran less than thirty grown-up-sized steps away from the back of the inn, which made for lovely scenery. It also came in handy when fetching water for the wash. It was not so convenient, however, as the starting ground for a ribbitting parade of amphibians. With the children behind them executing a fair amount of leaping of their own, the score of frogs (and one toad) felt it best to move away from the creek and toward the inn's open door, courtesy of Sampson's ill-timed dinner announcement. The frogs at his feet gave Sampson a start, and he hastily shut the door, permitting only three of the frogs to enter the inn's kitchen. While succeeding in keeping most of the frogs out of his building, he also blocked entry for poor Garth and Nori. As the innkeeper successfully cornered one of the frogs, the two children darted around to the front of the inn with hopes of flanking the renegade animals.

Moments later, the sound of frightened frogs called the attention of Mira – as well as every visitor in the common room – to the kitchen door just before Sampson burst through it. At the same time, Garth stumbled through the main entrance, with Nori in tow, and bee-lined toward his father. Now, Sampson was quite a tall man, almost as large as Nori's papa, so to see him and his son leaping up and down across the common room while swiping at the floor began to upset some of the inn's patrons, to say the least. By the time Sampson caught his second frog, two women had fainted, four children had started screaming, seven men were yelling at the innkeeper, and thirteen people had retreated to the upstairs. With only one remaining frog on the loose, Mira attempted to calm down the guests while Garth started hopping in a new direction.

It was Nori who found the fugitive vaulting onto a table in the corner of the room where two men and one young girl sat, each clothed in very fine garments. Nori raced to grab the frog before it called further attention upon itself, and the frog was determined to take a warm bath. Just as the amphibian made its plunge toward the nearest bowl, Nori heroically snatched it out of the air! Her moment of glory was short-lived, however, as her over-eagerness to capture the runaway lent itself to great momentum of Nori's body, which led to her falling toward the corner table even after the frog was in hand, which led to the thrusting of Nori's elbows onto one edge of the very bowl that the frog had made its target, which led to the opposite edge of the bowl being catapulted into the air, which unfortunately led to the broth of the rabbit-and-herb stew – along with a look of disdain – covering the face of the man behind the bowl.

The face belonged to none other than the Duke of Hatherton, who was known for his love of jewelry, but certainly not for his tolerance. The Duke had decided to visit Kensworth to expand his jewelry collection, and his decision to do so was a great honor for the village. The town jeweler had agreed to meet the Duke at the inn to present his finest work. The jeweler, along with his daughter of four and a case of glamorous accessories, had claimed a table in the corner of the common room and had ordered dinner for all three persons. The Duke's carriage arrived shortly thereafter, and his Grace took a seat at the table of the jeweler and his daughter approximately two minutes before the commotion had begun. What followed was this: a cordial introduction; the unveiling of gems set in bracelets, rings, and necklaces; a glimmer in the young girl's eyes; a brighter glimmer in the Duke's eyes; the sampling of rings upon the Duke's finger; the distraction of strange noises emerging from the kitchen; the interruption of the bumbling innkeeper; the Duke's outrage; the jeweler's assurance that all will be rectified; stew upon the Duke's face.

After recovering from his shock, the Duke of Hatherton wiped down his face and glared at Nori. “What is such a vile creature doing at this inn? And particularly on the day that I chose to grace this filthy town with my presence?”

“I'm terribly sorry, sir.” Not realizing the position of the man to whom she spoke nor the respect due him, Nori ran to the kitchen, out the door, and to the other side of Fenlock Creek before releasing the frog.

In her absence, the Duke muttered, “Splendid: one beast takes out another.” Now, when most persons mutter, they do so under their breath so as to keep others from hearing their utterances; contrarily, when a duke mutters, he does so above the bustle of people returning to their seats and above the apologies of jewelers and innkeepers – a duke mutters so that all may know the duke has muttered.

Sampson was known to be a proud man, so for him to offer an apology on behalf of his inn meant a great deal. An insult to his son's friend, though, was something he simply would not tolerate, no matter who had delivered it. “Your Grace, the young girl who kept that frog from jumping into your stew or your lap or your royal self-importance is the gentlest human I have ever encountered, and I can tell you as an innkeeper I have encountered a good many...”

“Oh, she is human, then. And to think I was almost credited for discovering a new species. Now, about that comment of my self-importance...”

“You are not welcome in this town, you peacock!”

“Yeah!”

Mira grabbed her son and placed one hand over his mouth. “Quiet, Garth.”

“Yes, I know,” the Duke replied, standing. “The frogs told me so.”

It was at this point that the jeweler inserted himself into the conversation: “No, no! We certainly welcome and revere you! Your mere presence is a blessing to us all! Allow us to make accommodations...”

The Duke ignored the man next to him and made his way toward the door. “You can expect to hear from me. Oh, and if I were you I would start packing your bags and looking for another line of work. Do not expect this inn to receive any more visitors save for thieves and scoundrels.”

Outside, Nori rounded the corner of the inn with stew on her elbow and mud on her boots just in time to see a squire aid the Duke into his carriage before the driver cracked his whip. As she entered into the common room, Mira threw her arms around Nori and held the girl's cheek against her bosom (which meant that Nori had to bend down, as she was considerably taller than Mira).

“Poor dear. Are you alright?”


© Copyright 2019 Theodore Raven. All rights reserved.

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