the murky prequel to "The Dark Portal"
was a beautiful afternoon in early summer.
The May sky was as blue and as clean
as anyone could wish and, in that forgotten corner of the
countryside known as Fennywolde, the barleycorn was already
Fennywolde is not an important place. No great battles were
ever fought or won there. No lost kingdoms or fortresses have
been ploughed into the soil and the only gold to be found
glints in the fur of those who call it home.
Yet, long ago, a band of warriors did make
their way to this picturesque spot. Leaving the horrors
of a terrible war behind them, a weary army of woodland
animals, led by that courageous mouse of great renown, Captain
Fenlyn Purfote, looked upon this little land and knew it
was the sanctuary they had been seeking. Far away from the
evils they had been fighting against, they settled here
and, during the long years of peace that followed, they
and their descendants flourished.
Little had changed since that glad time.To
the east of the ditch that cut through that gentle landscape,
the earth had been tilled and corn now grew, but in the
lower meadow the swaying grasses were still crowded with
wild flowers and the bees droned lazily above as they
had always done.
In the summer, the cornfield became home to many fieldmice.
But in the winter they escaped the cold by retreating
into ancient tunnels dug into the ditch’s steep bank and
under the roots of the elms, which shaded the gurgling
water on its way to the still pool.
For one small fieldmouse the best week of his life was
about to commence - one charged with magic, adventure
and difficult choices.
But that morning it
began in a very ordinary way. He came hurrying through the
snug passageways of the winter quarters, scolding himself
as he ran.
“You’re late!” He tutted crossly. “And today of all days.
I'm a daft dozy lummox!”
Whortle Nep, or Young Whortle as he was called, to avoid
any confusion between Whortle, his father and Old Whortle
his grandfather, hurried out of the tunnels, and into the
delicious fresh air.
He scampered along the edge of the ditch, as fast as his
little mousey legs would carry him. He had been daydreaming
in his winter bedchamber and had forgotten what the time
was. He often lost himself in his own fanciful world and
his friends joked with him about it. But today a meeting
was taking place that he did not want to miss.
Hopping over the
stepping-stones, he crossed into the meadow. He hurried
on, puffing and panting along one of the many mouse-trodden
paths that crisscrossed it. “And so!” a loud voice called
out from behind a screen of wild grasses.“May the best mouse
win!” A babble of excited voices erupted.
Disregarding the path in his eagerness, Young Whortle took
a more direct route by diving through the wall of grass to
his right - emerging in a little clearing filled with fieldmice.
They were chattering and discussing what had just been announced.
At the front, upon a raised mound of earth, one of the elders
was nodding and smiling. He was Mr Woodruffe, one of Fennywolde’s
most distinguished inhabitants. He was talking to a young
mouse called William Scuttle whom most called “Twit” because
they thought he was a bit simple.
Although they were the same age, Twit was not one of Young
Whortle’s special friends and he looked searchingly in the
crowd for them.
they were, over in the far corner. He squeezed his way through
the assembly to join them.
“Oh sorry!” he said when he stepped heavily on someone’s tail.
The startled mouse squeaked in surprise. It was Mrs Sedge,
the mother of a pretty mouse maid called Alison. All the boys
liked Alison. She was the loveliest girl in Fennywolde and
their ears turned bright pink when she turned her smile upon
them. Her mother however was a plump creature with a piggy
nose and was fond of complaining to the parents of those mouse
children she did not approve of.
“Did I squash it?” He asked. “I didn’t mean to, honest.”
“Your eyes are never on the ground, Young Whortle Nep!” she
grunted tersely as she rubbed her tail. Get along with you.”
“Yes Mrs Sedge!” he said, backing away - only to blunder straight
into someone else. “Watch where thou goeth, boy!” barked a
stern voice behind him.
Young Whortle winced. He knew who that was.
Slowly he turned around and there, glowering down, was Isaac
Nettle. Mr Nettle was a very tall, grave and sombre member
of the Fennywolde community. He was the local mousebrass-maker
and therefore commanded great respect. His faith in the magical
Green Mouse was the most important part of his life and, sometimes,
not even the problems of his own son, Jenkin, seemed to matter.
All the fieldmice, even Mr Woodruffe, were in awe of Isaac
“If thou spent more time doing an honest day’s graft with
thine soft paws or studying the ways of the blessed Green,”
Mr Nettle said sourly. “Thou would have less time for loafing
and dreaming. Clouds and rainbows are all that drift through
thy silly head! No good will come of it.”
Young Whortle stammered an apology and hurried away before
Mr Nettle could launch into a long lecture. Just about everyone
in Fennywolde had had their ears droned into by him at one
point or other.
Moving more carefully through the gathering, Young Whortle
finally joined his four best friends.
“What did I miss?” he asked anxiously.
They were still giggling at his run in with Mr Nettle. They
were a jolly group and delighted in each other’s company.
“You were lucky with Pricklenose just then!” exclaimed Figgy
Bottom. “I thought you were going to have Green sermons drummed
into you for the rest of the day.”
“Thou shalt not smile nor mucketh about,” warned Hodge, mimicking
Mr Nettle’s pious tones. “And if thou sniggereth, thy whiskers
shalt surely droppeth on the floor, thy tail shrivel up and
thine hind parts turn purple. Amen to that!”
others chuckled. It was a very good impression.
“So where have you been?” asked Skinny Samuel. “You been wool
gathering again? Dreamin’ about some barmy tale of Old Todmore’s,
no doubt. One about ghosties again I s’pose.”
“Well,” said Todkin flatly. “You’ve missed what was announced.”
Young Whortle stared at them. “What did I miss? What was said?”
“Only news of the biggest event of the Fennywolde calendar.”
“I don’t think we should tell him,” Figgy teased. “If he couldn’t
be bothered to be here on time, he don’t deserve to know.”
“Tell me.” Young Whortle demanded. “When are they going to
be held? What do we have to do? Tell me or I’ll go right back
to Nettle and tell him who threw that beetle at him back in
Everyone laughed at the memory.
Figgy was fascinated by insects, especially ugly ones and
enjoyed frightening others with them. A few months ago, he
had found a particularly large and hideous long horned beetle.
It was such a scowling, bad tempered creature that it strongly
reminded him of Mr Nettle so he thought the two of them should
Climbing one of the elms, the five friends had concealed themselves
on a low branch and waited the whole afternoon until the intended
victim came striding beneath and then Figgy hurled the beetle
down at him.
It was a perfect shot and no one had ever heard the mousebrass
maker use such unholy language before. How he howled and leaped
into the air when the beetle had bitten him! Mr Nettle was
furious for days afterwards but, fortunately for Figgy and
the rest, he believed the insect had merely flown into him.
The youngsters had nearly made themselves sick with laughter
that day and even now the memory of it could make them burst
into sudden gurgling fits.
“So tell me!” Young Whortle insisted.
“The Fennywolde Games,” Samuel explained.
“Are going to take place in seven days’ time. Whoever wins
them, is going to be the head sentry for the rest of the
“Until the scythe falls,” Hodge continued in his Mr Nettle
voice. “And then the Green’s power departs from the land
and I become more miserable and my vinegar face looks more
like a slapped hind part than ever – amen.”
“Head sentry!” Young Whortle whistled. “That’d be summat
grand to be. Just like bein’ a warrior, in the legends of
Captain Fenny and almost as good as bein’ King of the Field.”
“You and your knights and battles.” Todkin smiled. “You
believe any old yarn you do.”
Young Whortle’s eyes were twinkling with excitement. “What
did Mr Woodruffe say about the entrants?” he asked. “Everyone
with a mousebrass is eligible.” Todkin answered.
Young Whortle’s paw clasped the brass
amulet he wore around his neck. Earlier that year he and his
friends had come of age and had been given these important
symbols of family and protection in a very solemn ceremony
and they all wore them with pride.
“At last!” he cried.
“You’re not thinking of entering, are you?” Figgy chortled
“Why shouldn’t I?” “Er… cos you’re useless at running and
jumping and all that stuff!” The others had to agree with
“He’s not wrong there,” Samuel said, matter of factly. “You
really do stink, Warty.”
Young Whortle frowned at them. “Well this year,” he declared
in a fiercely determined voice. “I’m going to win those games
- I’m going to be head sentry!”
His friends were about to laugh again when they realised that
he was completely serious and they stared at him in blank
It was the sensible Todkin who spoke first. “I think we need
to call a meeting of our own.” He said gently.
Close to the northern edge of the meadow, near to the old
hedge, the five fieldmice had constructed a little hut from
woven twigs and straw and hidden by a camouflage of leaves.
They grandly called themselves The Wolf Killers, which was
Of course, none of them had ever seen a wolf, or had ever
killed anything but it sounded very bloodthirsty and glorious.
The best suggestions of the others had been: The Five Pips,
(Hodge’s idea) The Sons of Fenny (Young Whortle’s), The Small
Tigers (Samuel Gorse) and The Crawling Menace. The last proposal
had come from Figgy who couldn’t decide between that and The
Stinky Cheeses, which no one else liked at all and they had
pushed him into the ditch for even considering it.
So The Wolf Killers it was. Although the fieldmice really
wanted to identify with the wolves themselves and often practiced
howling because they had heard that’s what wolves did.
The hut was their hide out, their wolf’s den, where they met
to avoid their sisters or discuss secrets such as the beetle
incident or simply to take food to and indulge in private
feasts. No one else was allowed inside. This was their sanctum,
entered only by passwords.
The passwords that week were “Keep yer paws off me conkers”
and once each of them had uttered those important words they
were allowed inside.
Todkin was rather good at drawing so
he had decorated the inside with pictures of what he imagined
a wolf to look like. They were long legged shaggy monsters
with sharp claws, yellow eyes and many rows of teeth and fangs.
His friends were very pleased with his efforts
and those images often loped through their dreams.
Skinny Samuel took a satchel from behind his seat and began
munching on the hazelnut cake within. He hated being so
bony and this year he had promised himself to put some weight
on. But no matter how much he ate, he always looked like
a half starved furry skeleton.
Young Whortle was obstinately refusing to listen to anything
his friends tried to tell him and everyone was talking at
“You got no chance against me in the swim or the rafting!”
Figgy insisted. “Last time you went on a raft, you chucked
up your breakfast.”
“And you ain’t never wanted to have a crack at vaultin’
before.” Samuel put in, spitting cake crumbs everywhere.
“Said you was scared, you did.” Hodge closed his eyes and
“Then, there’s the sling shot.” He said darkly.
“Yes!” everyone chimed in. “The sling shot!” Young Whortle
folded his arms and the creases in his forehead deepened.
“Don’t care.” He muttered.
Todkin rose and waved his paws, calling for order.
“Young Master Nep!” he began, assuming a schoolmaster-like
tone. “Let me take a few moments to remind you of the nature
of these games. Firstly, they last for three whole days. There
are twelve events and each entrant must participate in six
of them. In no particular order, these events are: The Ditch
Vault, The Meadow Race, which is compulsory to all, The Raft
Race, The Ditch Leap, Ditch Swim, Tree Climb, Wrestling, Slingshot,
Barley Swing, Pebble Lift, High Jump and Tail Hang.”
“My tail can cling on to a corn stalk as good as anyone else’s.”
Young Whortle piped up. “An’ fer longer than most as well,
seein’ as how I’m so light.”
“That’s only one event.” Todkin told
him.“You can’t lift no heavy stones, nor wrestle anything
bigger than a butterfly.”
“My sister Dimsel could beat him,” put in Figgy.
“Your Dimsel could beat the lot of us.” Todkin added. Hodge
cleared his throat and, in a grumpy, girlish voice that was
spookily like Figgy’s sister, said. “Gimme some of that there
cake, Sammy, or I’ll twist yer arm off!”
Everyone shuddered and Samuel hastily passed across a chunk
Then Young Whortle said. “I can do the tree climb faster than
most as well.”
“That’s two then.” Todkin consented, “But no one ever became
Head Sentry winning just two.”
“I might be better at other things if’n I practice hard all
“You could practice till the oaks rot and fall down,” said
Samuel. “but you’ll never jump any higher than folk like Jenkin.”
“Not my fault I’m small.” Young Whortle grumbled.
“We never said it was.” Todkin said kindly. “But your titchiness
also rules out the Ditch Leap and you need longer arms to
be any good at the Barley Swing.”
“So what do that leave him?” Hodge asked in his own voice
for a change.
Todkin rocked back on his heels. “Well, everyone has to run
the Meadow Race so that leaves only three more to choose from
the list, either the Ditch Vault, the Raft, Ditch Swim…”
“I may not be the fastest swimmer in Fennywolde.” Young Whortle
protested. “But I ain’t the worst neither.”
“Don’t forget the slingshot.” Samuel said
The others laughed once more because they knew their little
friend was quite possibly the worst at that event. In the
history of Fennywolde there had never been anyone quite so
bad as him. The last time he had tried it, both the stone
and the slingshot went whizzing in completely the wrong direction.
“I think we really had better forget that one.” Todkin coughed.
Young Whortle shifted uncomfortably. He wanted to win the
games more than anything but it really did seem like an impossible
“Out of us lot, I reckon I’ve got the best chance of winning
the most events.” said Figgy.
“But you wouldn’t want to be Head Sentry though would you?”
asked Hodge, “It’s a big responsibility.”
Figgy thought about it for a moment. “You’re right there.”
He replied. “It’d get in the way of me insect collectin’.”
“I s’pose I’ll do well in the vaultin’,” said Samuel, “and
mebbe the Barley Swing and the Ditch Leap too, but I doesn’t
think I stand a chance of winning the title.”
Hodge shrugged his shoulders. “I ain’t bad at running, but
that’s about it.” he admitted. “And I don’t want to enter
it at all.” said Todkin. “I’m far too busy as it is and what
with sentry duty to do anyway. Its just one big bother to
Young Whortle listened to them sadly and gave a wretched sniff.
“It’s not fair.” He blurted suddenly. “It’s only a laugh to
you, none of you cares who wins, but I do. I ain’t never won
nowt and I’m the one who’s got no chance at all.”
His friends were stunned into silence. They saw how unhappy
he was and realised just how much this meant to him. As Young
Whortle stared miserably at the floor, they looked at each
other and silently agreed.
“We wasteth the blessed Green’s time!” Hodge declared, springing
up and heading for the doorway.
“Right enough,” agreed Figgy. “There’s lots to do.”
“I’ll go scare up some poles,” said Samuel.
“And I’ve got to work out a timetable,” said Todkin. Young
Whortle glanced up at them.
“What are you doing?” he asked glumly. His friends grinned
at him and Figgy slapped him on the back.
“We’re going to help you!” he announced. “In every way we
can. We got one week to train you and by the end of it you’ll
be the best pole vaulter, the best rafter, except for me obviously,
and we must do something about your lousy swimming.”
Young Whortle leaped to his feet. “Really?” he asked.
“You mean it?”
“Warty,” Skinny Samuel said, “This year, I am going to get
nice and fat, and you - are going to win the Fennywolde Games!”
© Copyright 2016. Robin Jarvis.