Balderdash thrummed with excitement. Green and blue smoke billowed from the apothecaries’ huts, music filled the air, and flames flickered along each of the buildings.
Different animals crawled this way and that: raccoons with missing bones, mangy cats, bats that pretty much looked like bats. One girl even had a cockroach trailing her, while another man carried what looked like a dog and a bird fused together. A dogbird.
After pulling her hood tight to conceal her identity, Scarlet entered the clamor. With a winning smile, she approached each booth in her path. The first sold strange finger traps that still had fingers in them. A sign read: ‘Can’t put a finger on the right gift? Buy a finger trap!’
The next vendor displayed masks, and above the small boy selling them, stretched a large sign: ‘Pick up your very own human mask! Ooo, Scary!’
Scarlet scanned the disguises, hoping to find one she liked. An old man with saggy skin and an impossibly long beard? A blonde girl with rosy cheeks and a red headdress atop long, wavy hair? Maybe a small boy with freckles, a toothy smile, and huge front teeth? She thought they all looked a bit silly and moved toward other booths.
Scarlet crawled along the street until a nasal voice caught her attention.
“Step right up, please, please,” a small, goblin-shaped man requested from atop a crate. “We are back with a better performance than ever before!” His large ears pushed against the brim of a patched top hat, and he wore too long a coat. His mouth housed rows of pointed, yellow teeth, while a black goatee helped shape his devilish smile. Small fingers barely poked out from the sleeves, though the loose clothes didn’t seem to hinder his movements.
Beside him stood another man quite the opposite in many ways. He towered over the crowd, wearing no hat at all. Instead, a ring of white, wiry hair circled around his pale head. A pair of goggles with a series of magnifying glasses covered his eyes. The sleeves of his long coat stopped well above his wrists, as did his pants above his ankles. All along his outfit hung different tools, many Scarlet did not recognize.
The small man waved his arms, drawing the crowd’s attention. “My name is Kobold, and this tall fellow is my brother, Sarg. Allow me to direct your attention to the stage.” Kobold pointed at a booth with red theater drapes. On either side hung different marionettes Scarlet guessed were retired from past plays, and the sign above read: ‘Kobold and Sarg’s Farces and Dramas.’
Sarg cleared his throat. His raucous voice vibrated the air between him and the crowd, “We chose not to reenact—”
Kobold pushed himself up on his tiptoes. “We chose not to reenact a story from one of the books found inside the graves this year! Instead, well….” Kobold turned to his brother. “Shall we?”
Sarg helped Kobold down from the crate, and together they walked behind the stage. Kobold vanished completely, but Sarg’s head hovered over the top of the sign before disappearing behind the booth.
A click from beneath the booth summoned a soft, white fog that seeped from all around the stage. After a moment of banging and shuffling, the curtain split, pulled to either side by invisible hands. The fog parted to reveal a hanging puppet.
“Ladies and gentleman, please welcome the shaman,” Kobold said, introducing the blocky puppet with a wave of her arm. The strings that held the many moving parts blended into the fog, creating the illusion that the doll floated in the air.
Gears clicked from inside the booth, followed by a backdrop of small buildings lifting from the stage floor. The shaman slowly floated toward them, moving along with Kobold’s narration.
“Once upon a time, all the people in Ashcroft, the aboveground village, had fallen ill. The villagers sought the best healer money could buy, finally finding a not-so-local shaman. Hearing great tales of the shaman’s natural ability to use magic and her vast knowledge of potions, they insisted that she come to their aid immediately.”
Kobold spoke as though he read poetry, pronouncing each word to perfection. “The shaman consented to the task and made her way to Ashcroft, arriving at the right time for some and the terribly last moment for others. She managed to cure all but one boy.”
On the stage, the shaman stood in the middle of the town. From the fog, a boy appeared on his knees before her. His small, blocky chest pumped up and down in a fit of coughing. “The shaman worked tirelessly to heal the boy, but not even her best magic could help him.”
A few colorful lights blinked across the scene, and the shaman’s hands glowed a soft blue. The boy collapsed on his back, remaining still. Suddenly, multiple villagers appeared and circled him.
Scarlet couldn’t help but wonder how Kobold and Sarg controlled so many puppets at once.
The villagers turned on the shaman, calling her a witch, demanding she confess to killing the boy. A loud clunk replaced the buildings with trees. The shaman’s doll moved in and out of them, running from the angry villagers.
Kobold’s voice intensified, as if he, too, ran from the villagers. “As a last
ditch effort, she managed to create a potion and swallow it before being caught.”
Sarg interjected: “The very Preservation Potion we drink each morning.”
“What did I tell you about interrupting?” Kobold hissed.
“Sorry,” Sarg said.
The trees dropped into the stage to be replaced with tombstones.
“The villagers condemned the shaman to death by noose and buried her in the Ashcroft graveyard. From that day on, no bodies were ever interred in those grounds, claiming it to be cursed with the witch’s blood.”
Sarg’s voice boomed again, “The very graveyard above Balderdash!”
The shaman’s arm jutted toward the back of the stage where Scarlet suspected Sarg sat. “I told you to stop!”
After a moment of unintelligible banter, the show continued. A bang stole the tombstones away. The shaman scratched her head.
“Now, where were we?” Kobold asked. “Oh, yes.”
Kobold told of how the Preservation Potion brought the shaman back to life and how she considered returning to the surface for revenge, before thinking better of it. But she knew that the caverns below Ashcroft grew the Valerian root in abundance, the main ingredient used in many different potions.
Another scene sprouted from the stage floor. Cavern walls surrounded the shaman who stood covered in filth, the results of her long dig through the earth, into the cave. She used her magic to create fire, then wandered around until she found enough roots and water to produce a small stock of potions.
Kobold’s voice slowed and took on a whimsical quality. “After considering her next step, she decided to attempt to resurrect a companion from the vast graveyard that sat between her and the world above.”
“The very—” Sarg began to say.
“We know it’s the graveyard above us, Sarg! Now please focus.”
The fog covered the stage like a blanket, and when it retreated once more, another puppet appeared next to the shaman. The doll depicted Scarlet’s father with various pieces of weaponry sticking from his back.
“The shaman explained to her new companion, Hurlock, her desire to create a kingdom of her own vision, one where its people didn’t get sick and everyone lived in peace. They needed more manpower, though, so together they set out to find an equal to Hurlock in size and strength. That was when they found the corpse of….” Kobold’s voice trailed off.
Silence washed over Scarlet as the music and chatter ceased. Everyone around her froze, stuck in mid-movement.
Their expressions made Scarlet worry that time had stopped and left her behind. No matter if they were in mid-laughter or just casually yawning, everyone held a look of frigid fear.
She reached for the closest person to her, a child pointing toward the play, and placed her hand on his shoulder. From that small bit of force, he fell to his side, his arms still held up in front of him.
In that moment, Scarlet wanted Roland or Screech there with her. The silence came with a physical weight and as she began to panic, she wished she’d listened to her father and stayed in the castle.